Psychologists have finally given a name to a phenomenon we’ve all experienced, either as perpetrators or victims: Motivated Reasoning. This refers to our tendency to rationalize every experience on the basis of what we want, expect, and hope for, rather than the reality of the facts in a given situation.
Huh? This is news? Well, not really. We’ve known of this phenomenon for thousands of years, yet there is some significance to its being given a formal name in that it opens the door for specific research into its origins and characteristics.
Motivated reasoning is at the root of things like denying the Holocaust, the moon landing, Obama’s birth origins, global warming, the use of vaccines, etc. It’s not so much that people aren’t entitled to their opinions; it’s the fact of how and why people sustain those opinions in the face of overwhelming evidence, that makes motivated reasoning so interesting.
Take for example “end of world” adherents – we’ve had one just recently , prophet Harold Camping’s prediction of The Rapture on May 21st 2011. These are people who believe that the world will end on a particular day. They sell their homes, quit their jobs and move to remote areas seeking shelter, or position themselves to be “rescued” by God, aliens, whatever. Then the appointed day arrives and nothing happens. Do they change their beliefs? Absolutely not. Instead, they find all kinds of reasons to explain why God or the aliens have forgiven Man, given him an extension, etc., etc.
While most of us may laugh at this, psychologists and social scientists have found the phenomenon extremely interesting since at least the 1950′s, because it’s such an extreme expression of what we today call motivated reasoning. We like to study extremes because they’re so pure and visible.
But motivated reasoning isn’t something we reserve for major issues like those stated above. Human beings do it all the time and there is growing speculation that we’re hard-wired for it. It may well be that our genetic programming to listen to and act on emotions (it’s much faster) overwhelms our higher level thinking and reasoning (much slower), e.g. when a tiger is about to devour you, it’s counterproductive to analyze why it has stripes.
The term “motivated reasoning” has been in use among scientists since the early 1990′s. It is now finding its way into the vernacular. Mother Jones May/June 2011 issue has an excellent article on the topic and the latest thinking about its origins.