Motivated Reasoning – Arguments to Continue Believing As We Already Do

Recently I have been thinking a lot about the way we think. To each of us, it feels as though our thinking and our thought process is logical, that our assumptions about the world are sound and built on good evidence, and that we might have a few complex technical facts wrong, but our judgments are not influenced by bias or prejudice. We feel that we take into consideration wide ranges of data when making decisions, and we do not feel as though our decisions and opinions are influenced by meaningless information and chance.

 

However, science tells us that our brains often make mistakes, and that many of those mistakes are systematic. Also, we know people in our own lives who display wonderful thinking errors, such as close-mindedness, gullibility, and arrogance. We should be more ready to accept that our thinking isn’t any different from the minds of people in scientific studies that show the brain’s capacity to traverse off course or that we are really any different from the person we complain about for being biased or unfair in their thinking about something or someone we we care about.

 

What can make this process hard is the mind itself. Our brains are experts at creating logical narratives, including about themselves. We are great at explaining why we did what we did, why we believe what we believe, and why our reasoning is correct. Scientists call this motivated reasoning.

 

Dale Carnegie has a great explanation of it in his book How to Win Friends and Influence People, “We like to continue to believe what we have been accustomed to accept as true, and the resentment aroused when doubt is cast upon any of our assumptions leads us to seek every manner of excuse for clinging to it. The result is that most of our so-called reasoning consists in finding arguments for going on believing as we already do.” 

 

Very often, when confronted with new information that doesn’t align with what we already believe, doesn’t align with our own self-interest, or that challenges our identity in one way or another, we don’t update our thinking but instead explain away or ignore the new information. Even for very small thing (Carnegie uses the pronunciation of Epictetus as an example) we may ignore convention and evidence and back our beliefs in outdated and out of context examples that seem to support us.

 

In my own life I try to remember this, and whether it is my rationalization of why it is OK that I went for a workout rather than doing dishes, or my self-talk about how great a new business idea is, or me rationalizing buying that sushi at the store when I was hungry while grocery shopping, I try to ask myself if my thoughts and decisions are influenced by motivated reasoning. This doesn’t always change my behavior, but it does help me recognize that I might be trying to fool myself. It helps me see that I am no better than anyone else when it comes to making up reasons to support all the things that I want. When I see this in other people, I am able to pull forward examples from my own life of me doing the same thing, and I can approach others with more generosity and hopefully find a more constructive way of addressing their behavior and thought process. At an individual level this won’t change the world, but on the margins we should try to reduce our motivated reasoning, as hard as it may be, and slowly encourage those around us to do the same.

How to Influence People

“The only way on earth to influence other people,” writes Dale Carnegie in his book How to Win Friends and Influence People, “is to talk about what they want and show them how to get it.”

 

Carnegie’s book is one that I have heard recommended over and over by successful guests on the various podcasts that I listen to. I was excited to read it to get real insight into how to be a more likable person and how to be a more influential person in the groups and organizations that I participate with. The book, however, doesn’t provide you with any hacks to trick people into being your friend or to slyly convince people to do what you want them to do. The book focuses on relationships and the importance of being sincere and present in your relationships with others in order to develop meaningful connections with the people around you. The quote above is part of that advice.

 

We don’t influence other people’s decisions by preaching at them, by constantly yelling at them when they do something we consider to be wrong, or by nagging them to do things the way we want. We influence other people by connecting their actions, behaviors, and beliefs to larger outcomes that the other person is aiming for. In the ultimate sense, we show how the other person’s behaviors, actions, and beliefs are either in or out of alignment with their personal values.

 

In 2016 I started the Masters in Public Administration program at the University of Nevada, Reno. For years I had heard my sister tell me about the benefits of universal health care. I had heard my parents and uncles talk about the ways that welfare lead to people staying home to play video games instead of working. I had listened to people talk about trickle down economics and the values of federalism, and I wanted to enter a masters program where I could learn how to sort out all the arguments people discussed regarding public policy and governance. I wanted concrete facts so I could make rational decisions on all these topics and tell my family members who was empirically correct and who was wrong.

 

What I learned, however, is that all of these policy discussions hinge on something deeper than the cold hard rational facts. They hinge on values. As I learned what the scientific research showed about universal healthcare, tax rates, and social welfare programs, I told my family members where their ideas seemed to make sense and where they seemed to be in conflict with the actual data. My empirical evidence has meant nothing to my family members and has not changed any minds. The data is only useful when it supports the position that people want to hold based on their values. Changing minds and influencing people, therefore has to be connected to the values they already hold or that they aspire to.

 

Carnegie’s quote at the start of this post is all about connecting to values. You have to talk to people about what they want to see in life, why they want to see those things, and what values are driving the ways they hope the world turns out to be. Then you need to show them how the things you support, the ideas you think the other person should hold, and how the actions that you hope they will take help get the other person and society closer to those values.

 

For whatever reason we don’t like to talk about our values openly. Partly this is because for many of us our number one value is our own self-interest, and we don’t want to say that directly. But we also make up excuses around issues of abortion, healthcare, and taxes where we claim that economics or good health are the values we care about, but really we care much more about identity, self-interest, and whether the world is fair to us. If we could discuss those values directly, rather than hiding behind economic BS, then maybe we could actually compromise or be less hateful of those who don’t agree with us. In the end, we should remember that it is our values which underlay everything we say or due (that includes me, you, and that person on social media you hate). If we want to try to shape the world for the better, we better understand what values are driving us, what values drive others, and how we communicate our values in terms of how we think the world should operate. We won’t influence people to live better if we are not up front about our values and can’t connect other people’s actions back to the values question.

How We Define Our World

Our thoughts are generally not just our own thoughts. What we think, what we say, and ultimately what we do is influenced by other people. We are social animals and come to understand ourselves and define ourselves socially. However, we often are not aware of just how much this social conditioning shapes our thinking and understanding. Fernando Pessoa writes about this in his book The Book of Disquiet which was assembled from his notes and published after his death.

 

In a translation from the original Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa, Pessoa writes, “Their inability to say what they see or think is a cause of suffering to most people. …they imagine that to define something one should say what other people want, and not what one needs to say in order to produce a definition.”

 

When we think about something, it is often in the context of social situations. We don’t exist in a vacuum where we can give everything around us a name and definition, so we must rely on the knowledge and understanding of others in creating a shred definition and shared meaning in what we communicate. At a basic level, we must share some type of understanding to communicate how we are feeling, what something is, what happened, and what it all means. However, we go a step further than just this.

 

We anticipate what other people want to hear and expect to hear, and we adjust our communication accordingly. Pessoa seems to suggest that we don’t just adapt our speaking and communication when we do this, but we adjust our entire way of thinking to align with what we think other people believe, feel, and understand. We don’t think and develop concepts independently, but we do so socially, depending on others and making assumptions about what is happening in their head as we formulate ideas within our own heads. Because our thoughts are not independent, when we are asked to define something abstract we falter. Rather than simply describing the thing, we become paralyzed as we try to think about what is already in another person’s head, what they are expecting to hear, and what they will think if we provide a definition they did not expect. Rather than being free and brave enough to offer our own definition, or to have our own thoughts, we simply adopt the social beliefs around us, conforming to the shared thoughts of others.

 

In one sense I find it troubling that we don’t have our own independent thoughts and ideas. But at the same time, I don’t know what it would mean for everyone to have independent thoughts and understandings of the world. I don’t know how we could cooperate and build a society if we all had truly distinct thoughts and opinions about how the world should operate and about how to define the world as it is. I find that when I consider the reality of our social minds, I fall back on the same conclusion as always, it is important to be aware of what is really happening and understand that we don’t think independently of others, but I don’t know how that should change our ways of thinking or our manifesting behaviors on individual or societal levels. Perhaps our honesty with ourselves will make us less cocky and less arrogant, but perhaps it will open us up to be taken advantage of by people who are. Ultimately, having more knowledge of what our minds are really doing will hopefully make us better people.

Beliefs Are Not Always in the Driver’s Seat

I am not a religious person. I can explain to you all the reasons why I don’t believe there is a deity who created the universe or interjects into our lives, but according to Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson, that might not be a particular meaningful thing to try to communicate. If I set out to explain what I believe about the world as a rational for the beliefs that I hold, I might be missing a more fundamental but less appealing reason for my atheism. I don’t come from a religious family, and to be a good part of my familial group and our friend groups, I adopted their beliefs and have found justification for those beliefs through the years. I may think those justifications are sound, but that doesn’t mean I should ignore the part of my brain that set me down the path I am on.

 

In The Elephant in the Brain, Simler and Hanson write, “as we’ve seen throughout the book, beliefs aren’t always in the driver’s seat. Instead, they’re often better modeled as symptoms of the underlying incentives, which are frequently social rather than psychological. This is the religious elephant in the brain: We don’t worship simply because we believe. Instead we worship (and believe) because it helps us as social creatures.”

 

Hanson and Simler explain the ways in which both theists and atheists approach religion following a belief-first model. In this model, we develop beliefs about the world and universe from what we see and experience and then we adjust our behaviors to align with those beliefs. This is the model, the authors suggest, that is at work in debates between most theists and atheists. This is why we argue over the veracity of religious claims and the implications of ever growing scientific understandings of the universe.

 

But what might really be going on, and this is a view you might see from an anthropologist but might not hold front and center in your views, is that religious views help us be part of a social group and community of people who cooperate, share common values, and can provide support to one another. Religion has social values that can draw people toward it, and increasingly today, atheism seems to have many of  the same social qualities.

 

I have been in very religious contexts and circles though I am most comfortable among atheists. In both groups I have noted a tendency to characterize the other group as deviants. Religious people are mocked as morons while atheists are scoffed at as selfish and amoral trouble-makers. Both groups use the other as an out-group of villains to create more cohesion internally.

 

There is surely a part of religious beliefs that is driven by our experiences and how we think about and understand the world, but whether we want to admit it or not, a large part of our religious identity is shaped by our relationships and social groups surrounding the idea of religion. We can use religion as a model and a guide for our lives that provides us with social connections and social benefits, and we can also use our lack of religious beliefs to do the same. The true nature of the universe and the reality of the world around us often come second, and that is part of why it is so hard to change someone’s religious beliefs and why we tend to hold the same beliefs as our parents and family.

Egocentric Bias

I was reading an political science paper in an academic journal last night and came across a sentence that really stood out to me. The paper focused on the staffers who work for members of congress and whether they held accurate views of the constituents represented by the member of congress that they worked for. The paper finds that congressional staffers routinely misinterpret the views of their constituents, particularly overestimating just how conservative their constituents tend to be.

 

One reason given for the misinterpretation of constituent views was the opinions and ideology of the staffers themselves. In particular, egocentric bias may be pushing the staffers to see the views of their constituents in a warped light. The authors write, “Egocentric bias is a consistent finding in psychology that suggests individuals use  their own beliefs as a heuristic for estimating the beliefs and opinions of others.” In other words, we believe that people are like us and think the way we do.

 

In political science and in a democracy the implications of egocentric bias are huge. Our representatives could totally misinterpret what we think is good or bad, could totally fail to see what issues are important to us, and could support (or oppose) legislation thinking they were doing what we, their constituents, wanted. But really our representatives might end up acting against the wishes of a majority of the people they represent.

 

In our own lives, egocentric bias can also play a huge role. It may not seem like a big deal if we play some music from a speaker while hiking, if we don’t wipe down the machine at the gym, or if we wear that shirt with a funny yet provocative saying on it. After all, we are not bothered with these things and if we assume most people are like us then no one will really care too much. Unfortunately, other people (possibly a plurality or majority of others) may see our behaviors as reprehensible and deeply upsetting. We made an assumption that things we like are things that others like and that things that bother us are things that bother others. We adapted our behavior around our own interests and just assumed everyone else would understand and go with the flow. We bought in to egocentric behavior and acted in ways that could really upset or offend other people.

 

Egocentric bias is something we should work to recognize and move beyond. When we assume everyone is like us, we become less considerate, and that will show in how we behave. If instead we recognize that people are not all like us, we can start to see our world and our actions through new perspectives. This can open up new possibilities for our lives and help us to behave in ways that are more helpful toward others rather than in ways that are more likely to upset other people. What we will find is that we are able to have better connections with people around us and develop better relationships with people because we are more considerate and better able to view the world as they may see it, rather than just assuming that everyone sees the world how we do.

Changing Your Views on a Group of People

An unfortunate reality in our world is that we don’t have a lot of incentives to change our beliefs about things. What we think and feel regarding a specific item is heavily influenced by more than just our own experiences and rational thoughts about that thing. Our social groups, self-interests, and group identities can shape our beliefs and make it almost impossible for our beliefs to have any flexibility. In this setting, changing our beliefs may require that we break with a group identity, view the world in a way that is inconsistent with the rest of the people around us, and acknowledge that our narrow self-interest is not what is in the best interest of a larger society.

 

Colin Wright wrote about this in his book Becoming Who We Need To Be and related the idea directly to the ways we think about groups of people. He writes, “If we’ve spent our lives hating, or at least feeling superior to, a particular group of people, but then are exposed to convincing information about that group that makes us hate them less, that’s a very awkward moment. Taking this new information seriously would mean having to choose between continuing on as we are now, with our existing biases, our existing way of interacting with these people, our existing group of friends who probably have he same set of biases that we now feel compelled to question, or changing all that.” Wright shows that changing one’s views, even when there is good reason, can be awkward in one’s personal life. Beyond simply saying, “I was wrong,” changing one’s beliefs means that you then have to tell others (who you may have been very close with) that they are still wrong, and that can be hard for many people.

 

I don’t have a solution here for how to improve the likelihood of changing people’s minds. Instead, what I am doing is pointing out how many factors are involved with changing our minds. We should recognize that we may hold many of our beliefs for reasons we don’t want to acknowledge, like peer pressure or self-interest. Given that many of our beliefs may be influenced by factors beyond our own rationality, and given the difficulty we may have in changing our beliefs if they are indeed wrong, we should try to be more flexible in general with how we see the world and how we think about our worldviews. Being skeptical of our own knowledge doesn’t feel as good as telling ourselves that we have it all figured out, but it is probably a better place for us to be. We might not be able to change other people’s views (especially on ideas that are highly visible and salient), but at least we can be more honest with ourselves about the beliefs we have and hopefully more willing to change our beliefs because we never clung to tightly to them in the first place. This in turn may help other people to be more vulnerable in their own beliefs and slightly more open to change.

Believing in the Self and Achieving Success

Ryan Holiday encourages his readers to be confident in who they are, but to build their confidence through real work and effort and to base their belief in themselves on real achievement. His book Ego is the Enemy is a look at how our egos can ruin our lives and put us in situations where we cannot be successful unless we are honest with ourselves about our abilities. He quotes a biographer of a little known Civil War General, William Tecumseh Sherman, to help us see what honest and sincere self-confidence looks like. The full passage that he quotes is:

 

“Among men who rise to fame and leadership two types are recognizable – those who are born with a belief in themselves and those in whom it is a slow growth dependent on actual achievement. To the men of the last type their own success is a constant surprise, and its fruits the more delicious, yet to be tested cautiously with a haunting sense of doubt whether it is not all a dream. In that doubt lies true modesty, not the shame of insincere self-deprecation but the modest of “moderation,” in the Greek sense. It is poise, not pose.”

 

When we believe in ourselves despite having no reason to believe that we can accomplish what we desire, we risk pursuing a goal without being honest about ourselves, our position, our advantages, and our limitations. We put ourselves in a position where we believe we understand more than we truly do and where we believe that we know more about the world than we do. This may help us bulldoze our way to success, but it may also cause us to be brash around colleagues and friends who may be better suited than us for achieving goals to make a true difference in the world. Ultimately, this form of ego reduction requires that we also shift the traditional view of success. If our success is not tied to our own income and to being better than other people, then we can see success as helping improve some aspect of the world, and we can then improve the way we learn from others and achieve success by helping others make a difference. Modesty and a healthy appreciation for ones abilities can aid us in our growth by allowing us to be comfortable in a position where we make a big difference, even if we are not in the spotlight. While keeping us grounded on our true abilities, strengths, and weaknesses, humility helps us grow and learn and so that we can develop the skills necessary to accomplish things that matter most.

Always Asking Questions

Questioning the world around us is part of what makes us human. Our search for answers and a better understanding of the universe is the story of human progress on Earth, and we must constantly ask questions and to find new answers to propel us forward. Often we never reach the answer we were hoping for, but we still ask questions and we still do our best to continue to understand what is taking place in the world around us.

 

In Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coats discusses how he learned to question the world, to truly strive to better understand the universe, by observing what took place around him and asking why.

 

“My mother and father were always pushing me away from secondhand answers—even the answers they themselves believed. I don’t know that I have ever found any satisfactory answers of my own. But every time I ask it, the question is refined. That is the best of what the old heads meant when they spoke of being “politically conscious” —as much a series of actions as a state of being, a constant questioning, questioning as a ritual, questioning as exploration rather than the search for certainty.”

 

Recently I have been more aware of the answers people have to the frequent questions our world asks: Who should we elect, what is the nature of religion, how should we organize society to maximize human progress? Listening to the responses people have, it is clear to me that most people do not have answers, but instead have partial secondhand responses that they think they should defend. Most people do not live their lives in a constant state of questioning, and if they do, they seek out certainty to place themselves and their actions on the correct side of any given issue. Rather than inquiry and a deeper understanding, people pursue comfort and reaffirmation. This is clear in the simplistic shallow answers people offer to complex questions.

 

What Coats learned from his parents was to find his own answers. His parents pushed him to learn, to be aware of the world around him, to ask why, and to not accept the simple answers that people offered. His story shows why it is important to be constantly questioning what we know, why we know what we know, and whether our model of the universe is operating with the best information available. It is likely that we won’t find perfect answers, but that does not mean we should stop questioning or that we are on the wrong path because our knowledge is in one way or another incomplete. Recycling answers from someone else, especially secondhand answers that were never formed as complete thoughts, is dangerous and misleading. We fall into cycles where we fail to actually look for answers and build more complete understanding, and instead look past the answer given and find the response that seems to support our identity and the belief we want to hold about ourselves.

 

Our understanding of the universe should be nuanced because the universe, human interaction, and the organization of everything from atoms to people is complex. When we fall back on absolute answers and simple solutions, we are avoiding the nuanced and the challenging investigation of our planet. Easy and assuring answers are nice, but they do not aid human progress and they do not allow us to live in a state where we improve upon our knowledge and beliefs.

Reflecting Your Inner Self

Without self-awareness I have found that it is easy to fall into a place where my actions do not hold to the values that I profess to live by. Even with self-awareness, I have found that there are still times where my actions fall short of what I think should be my ideal. Occasionally I know what must be done in a situation, but I desire the opposite, am held back by fear, or I am just too lazy to take action. There are times when virtues truly stand out, and times when they don’t shine through. A quick quote from Cory Booker may help explain what is taking place within me during these times. “The wold you see outside of you is a reflection of what you have inside you.”

My disconnect between my actions and thoughts is an example of my inner self being reflected on the outer world. I think my example branches away from what Booker’s quote truly hits at, but I think it is a useful place to start. Our actions show who we truly are inside, while our words and stories are used to tell ourselves and others what we want to hear. We may have ideals that we strive to live by and we may be able to inspire others with virtuous tales, but it is ultimately our decisions and actions that show who we truly are and what is truly important to us and driving our decisions.

Luckily for us (myself included) we can become more aware of our actions, reactions, thoughts, and habits to begin to change what we do and what it is within us that motivates and drives our behaviors. Focusing inward can show us what operating system has been guiding our lives. We can use reflection to examine our actions and determine whether we have actually been living up to the ideals we believe in. From this point we can begin to create change by first adjusting what is internal, creating an environment for what is external.

My other viewpoint on Booker’s quote, and I think the idea he was driving at more directly in his book United, relates to our perception of the world around us. A simple read of the quote is that if we are insecure in our life, we will see insecurities in the lives of others. If we are kind in our life, we will see kindness throughout the world.

Booker is sharing an idea that we perceive the world as a reflection of our inner character and opinions. We will somehow come to view the world the way we expect it. Our preconceived notions of the world, our biases, our desires, and other beliefs will be projected from inside our head onto the world we see and experience. If we choose to focus not on animosity but on love, we will see not just other people’s actions of love, but we will see where we can step in and be a force of positivity in the world. If we choose instead to be greedy and struggle for power out of hedonistic tendencies, then we will see others as motivated by the same forces, and we will see a word fraught with selfish competition.

Ultimately who we are inside is projected on to the world through our perceptions, and who we are inside is manifested in the world through our actions. Our internal values and goals shape the way we come to understand the world, which in tern shapes the way we act. We reflect our inner self through thoughts and actions.

The Friends Around Us

Joshua Fields Millburn wrote the forward for Colin Wright’s book, Some Thoughts About Relationships, and in his forward he looks at the ways in which many of us develop and maintain friendships. To start it off, he writes, “If I could go back in time and give my eighteen-year-old self one nugget of advice, it would be this: You can’t change the people around you, but you can change the people around you.”

Fields Millburn explains that we often fall into a trap where we develop relationships with the people around us simply because they are around us. It is not a bad thing to become friends with neighbors, co-workers, and people in the same geographic locations as ourselves, but in some ways it can be a little limiting. Having positive and meaningful relationships with people around us is important and can make a big impact in our lives and the connections we have with the places we live, work, or go to school, but we can also strive to have greater friendships with people beyond our small geographic region.

Throughout his forward he encourages us to look first inward and understand ourselves and become someone that we can and want to be friends with. After reflecting on ourselves and developing our values, we can align our actions, and begin to develop true relationships based not on proximity, but on values. The trouble, explains Fields Millburn, with the proximity approach to friends and relationships is that we can’t always find people at work or in our neighborhoods who share the same values that we do. We don’t need to share the same beliefs to have the same values, but associating and living with people who don’t share your values in some way puts your actions and habits at odds with the values that you wish to live by. Striving beyond our local constraints to meet people who share our values and focus their lives to advance those values will give us a positive model and sounding board for our own lives, even if they are distant from us physically.

When I first returned to this quote I worried that seeking out people beyond our proximal friends who shared our same values would contribute to the already evident problem of information bubbles that we see across the country. Many people become isolated their media and information streams to only view that which they agree with or that which supports their prior beliefs. But what Fields Millburn explains is that it should be our values, and not our beliefs that align with the people with whom we associate. On a deep level we should make sure that our lives, goals, desires, and actions are in some ways connected with positive values, and we should expect that our beliefs built on top of those values will vary.

At one point, Fields Millburn specifically addresses the idea of bubbles and is critical of the isolationist bubbles that many people live in when restricting their friendships to spatially close people. Looking beyond those people who are immediately present in our lives will allow us to expand beyond the bubble that we live within.