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uses the pronunciation of Epictetus as an example) we may ignore convention and evidence and back our beliefs in outdated and out of context examples that seem to support us.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.

Trying to Improve Others?

We spend a lot of time criticizing other people and trying to change those around us, and that energy might be misplaced. Instead of spending so much time thinking about others, worrying about their decisions and choices, and trying to get them to act differently, we should look inward, and consider if we are living up to the standards we are trying to set for someone else.

 

In his book How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie writes, “Do you know someone you would like to change and regulate and improve? Good! That is fine. I am all in favor of it. But why not begin on yourself? From a purely selfish standpoint, that is a lot more profitable than trying to improve others-yes, and a lot less dangerous.”

 

Carnegie seems to suggest that we should be thinking about how we can help other people become better versions of themselves, but that we should first focus on making ourselves the best version of who we are. The gains that we will see in life will be greater if we focus on self-improvement rather than trying to change others. By focusing on ourselves we can improve our effectiveness, ensure we are engaging in the world in a meaningful way, and become more self-aware of the things we could do better. All of the gains in these areas will help us be the kind of role model that other people can look to when they try to make their own lives better.

 

It is through starting with ourselves that we can have an impact in the lives of others. Once we have made meaningful changes in who we are and what we do, once we have established habits of greatness, we can share what we have learned with others and provide them with advice regarding the things we have done to become successful, more engaged in the world, and more connected to the people around us. This will help us to change people and further the positive impact we have on the world. It all starts, however, with changing ourselves first.

Outsiders Within Our Own Minds

How good are you at introspection? How much do you know about yourself and how much do other people know about you that you don’t actually know? I try to ask myself these types of questions and reflect on how much I don’t actually recognize or know about myself, but it is really difficult. I much prefer to look at what I do with the most generous interpretation of myself and my actions and decisions, but I know that somewhere out there someplace is someone who looks at me with the least generous interpretations of me and my actions, in much the same way I look at a person smoking or a person with a political bumper sticker that I dislike and instantly want to ascribe a whole set of negative qualities to them. Beyond simply the idea of looking at ourselves honestly, looking at ourselves from the least favorable position is extremely uncomfortable, and reveals a bunch of things about who we are that we would rather ignore.

 

Luckily for us, our brains protect us from this discomfort by simply failing to be aware of our true actions and motives in any given point in time. The brain ascribes high-minded reasons for our behaviors, and hands us a script with the best interpretation of what we do. When it comes to the brain, we feel like we know what is going on within it, but the reality is that our own minds are mysteries to ourselves.

 

Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson write about this in their book The Elephant in the Brain. “In other words, even we don’t have particularly privileged access to the information and decision-making that goes on inside our minds. We think we’re pretty good at introspection, but that’s largely an illusion. In a way we’re almost like outsiders within our own minds.”

 

We tell ourselves that what we do makes sense, is logical, and is the best possible outcome for everyone in a given situation. The reality is that we are likely more focused on our own gain than anything else. We don’t want to admit this to anyone (even ourselves) and so we sugar coat it and hide  our motivations behind altruistic reasons. Piercing through this with self-reflection is challenging because we are so good at deflecting and deceiving our own thought processes. It is comforting to believe that we are on the right side of a moral issue (especially if we get benefits from the side we are on) and uncomfortable with no clear path forward if we look inward and discover that we may have been wrong the whole time (especially if it seems that our social group has been wrong the whole time). Increasingly in my life I find it imperative that I consider that my brain doesn’t see things clearly and that my brain is likely wrong and short sighted about many issues. Remembering this helps me avoid becoming too certain of my beliefs, and keeps me open to the ways that other people see the world. It helps me recognize when people are acting out of their own self-interest, and helps me pull back in situations where my ego wants to run wild and declare that I am clearly right and those other people are obviously violating good moral ethics.

More on Hiding Our Motives

Deception is a big part of being a human being. If we try, we can all think of times when we have been deceived. Someone led us to believe one thing, and then we found out that something different was really going on the whole time. If we are honest with ourselves, we can also see that we clearly try to deceive others all the time. We make ourselves seem like we are one thing, but in many ways, we are not exactly what we present ourselves as being. Sometimes we truly are genuine, but often, we are signaling a particular behavior or trait to a group so that we can be accepted, praised, and get some sort of future benefit. In order to do this really well, we create stories and ideas about why we do the things we do, deceiving even ourselves in the process. As Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson wright in their book The Elephant in the Brain, “We hide some of our motives…in order to mislead others.”

 

This is not a pretty idea of humans, and expressing this idea is an admittance that we sometimes are not as great as we like to make everyone believe. This is not an idea that is popular or that everyone will be quick to admit, but I believe that Simler and Hanson are right in saying that it is a huge driving influencer of the world around us. I also don’t think that accepting this about ourselves ends up leaving us in as sad, cynical, and dejected of a place as one might think. Humans and our social groups are complicated, and sometimes being a little deceptive, doing things with ulterior motives at their base, and behaving in a way to signal group alliance or value can be a net positive. We can recognize that we do these things, that we are deceptive, and that we deceive others by lying about our motives, and still make a good impact in the world. The altruist who donates money to the Against Malaria foundation may tell himself and everyone he knows that he donates because he wants to save people’s lives, but truly he just gets a warm glow within himself, and that is perfectly fine as long as the externality from his status seeking behavior is overwhelmingly positive (looking in the mirror on this one).

 

If we don’t accept this reality about ourselves and others then we will spend a lot of time trying to work on the wrong problem and a lot of time being confused as to why our mental models of the world don’t seem to work out. In my own life, recognizing status seeking behavior, self-deception, and motivated thinking helps me to be less judgmental toward other people. I recognize that I have the same capacity for these negative and deceptive behaviors within myself, and I choose (as much as I can) to redirect these types of behaviors in directions that have the greatest positive social impact rather than in the direction that has the greatest personal benefit for me and my feelings. Ultimately, I encourage us to be honest about the fact that we are sometimes rather dishonest and to build our awareness in a way that is easy on ourselves and others for behaving as humans naturally behave, but still nudges us in a direction where we create positive externalities where possible from these ways of being.

Blind Desires

I think we need to do a lot more coaching with young people, starting early in high school, to discuss careers, ambitions, goals, and what the world is going to expect from young people once they leave high school or college and begin to enter the work force. In the United States, once we complete our education (and sometimes before our education is complete) we enter the job market and a world where we compete for jobs and compete for status. Our world becomes centered around a career that takes up 40 hours of our attention and focus each week. When we are not at work we retreat to our homes where we try to show the world what we have and how special we are. The goal for many of us become increasing what we have to show our high status. We want to go upward, to earn more, to be more, and to have more.

 

But why do we share this desire? Who sat down with all of us to tell us that what we must do is push ourselves in our career and become wealthy to define ourselves as successful? Who told us to all want more and more things? Why do we all desire more expensive cars, bigger homes, and a more impressive title? I would suggest that these are generally blind desires that we organize our life around without deep thought as to where these desires came from.

 

We should sit down with young people to talk about pitfalls of following this traditional path. We should talk to young people about research which seems to indicate that social interaction can be as important for happiness as ever expanding wealth. We should talk about the importance of not just building up our own career, but of building systems and communities that can bring people together, rather than just building up ourselves to show off.

 

In Letters From a Stoic Seneca writes, “we are plunged by our blind desires into ventures which will harm us, but certainly will never satisfy us; for if we could be satisfied with anything, we should have been satisfied long ago.” I don’t think everyone needs to abandon capitalism, stop working, and give up all desires, but I think we should be more considerate when we think about career decisions and the work we spend our time with. If we decide that we need a big house, an expensive car, and X number of material goods to be happy, then we will make career and work decisions that trade off our time, flexibility, possibly our health, and our relationships with others so that we can have these things. We should turn inward to make sure we are not pursuing blind desires and we should re-focus ourselves and our lives in a way that will help us find more satisfaction without needing to constantly one-up ourselves and others.

Seneca on Riches

Do you actually enjoy the things that you have? Have you become accustomed to the things in your life and do you even notice them? Does your stuff frustrate you and do you worry over your stuff? Are you living in a way where the things that you have are an aid to your life and serve to constantly make you a little more happy, or as soon as you have something do you feel remorse for spending so much to get it, and when you see it are you reminded of the cost to own the thing?

 

In my life, there have been many things that I wanted, but that quickly became part of my status quo and forgotten. Things that required me to spend time maintaining them or that did end up making me as happy as I expected, causing remorse over my impulsive purchase. It is remarkable how quickly a new home can become normal, and how our wonders at having a home can fade into frustration when we have to keep it clean or when another Friday night rolls around and we have nothing to do and no where to go so we dejectedly sit around inside. We spend a lot of time working to make money and often end up buying things that quickly become our new normal and don’t provide us with a continual source and stream of satisfaction.

 

“He who needs riches least, enjoys riches most.” Seneca writes in Letters From a Stoic quoting Epicurus. It is when we become accustomed to the bounty from our wealth and success that we become dependent on our things. Those items which fade to our background and become the status quo start to be our masters, and instead of feeling grateful for having what we have, we just assume that having the thing is what life is supposed to be like.

 

One of the ways that I have been able to get away from these types of moods is by avoiding advertising. Everywhere you go and every time you watch something, somebody seems to be presenting you with an image of an ideal life. That life is always full of friends and laughter, but it is also full of new shiny stuff. We are constantly urged to buy a new car, a new fridge, a new coffee maker, better sheets, a better toothbrush, and each day we are exposed to ads for something new. Overtime, these advertisements push certain expectations for what a happy and successful life is supposed to be into our minds. By being aware of our stuff, our emotions, and the dizzying storm of advertisements we encounter each day we can push back against the feeling that we always need new stuff, and we can start to better enjoy the things we actually have.

 

Thinking About Our Friendships

I am always saddened by how challenging adult friendships can be. Once you begin working 40 hours a week, have to deal with a commute, and have a household to look over, keeping up with friends and getting out to do things with friends becomes nearly impossible. I enjoy being able to own a home, but unfortunately, like many suburban residents I have a lengthy commute to work, get home and park in my garage, and generally don’t see a lot of friends or even neighbors during the week. I try not to be on my phone at work, and when I get home I start cooking and generally don’t message or call anyone.

 

In this busy work-life world, it can become easy to start seeing friends the way we see our impersonal relationships with ATM machines, paddle boards, and the grocery store. If it is convenient and if I get something in return from our friendship, I’ll reach out and try to schedule something for the weekend. If you can help me and if being friends with you is likely to pay off, then we can say hi to each other and maybe hangout for a BBQ sometime.

 

Trying to cram friendship into our suburban lifestyle in this way, however, doesn’t work and we won’t be satisfied with our friendships if we approach friendship with this type of utility maximization. Friendship and deep relationships are about more than just convenience or borrowing a leaf blower. Seneca writes, “He who begins to be your friend because it pays will also cease because it pays.” Many of our friendships end-up being just cordial relationships when times are easy.

 

This can leave us without support when we face real challenges and emergencies. It can leave us feeling isolated and depressed and provide us with fewer opportunities to socialize and connect with people in a meaningful way. I truly think this is one of the greatest challenges we face and I see even small things, like starting a club or community group, as a huge step toward changing the relationships we have. We need to see people not as friendship ATMs,  but as real individuals who have the same challenges, fears, and capacity for enjoyment and interest in the world as we do. By seeing a little more of ourselves in others we can start to see the importance of having meaningful connections with people and we can start working to better connect with the people around us.

You Are Not Just Yourself

“Much harm is done by a single case of indulgence or greed,” Seneca wrote in a letter saved in the book Letters From a Stoic, “the familiar friend, if he be luxurious, weakens and softens us imperceptibly; the neighbor, if he be rich, rouses our covetousness; the companion, if he be slanderous, rubs off some of his rust upon us, even though we be spotless and sincere. What then do you think the effect will be on character when the world at large assaults it!”

The way we think about ourselves is that we are conscious actors in control of our behaviors, beliefs, worldviews, and actions. Who we are and what we do is under our control. We decide if we want to engage with people, shut ourselves in our room and read all day, be nice to strangers, gossip about our co-workers, and eat at Taco Bell. The reality however, is that much of who we are and what we do is influenced by the people and situations around us. I was recently listening to Rob Reid’s podcast, After On, and his guest described a study looking at the neighbors of people who win new cars as prizes. The number of people who purchase a new car within a short time period after their neighbor wins a car is larger than you would expect just by chance. People seem to be changing their car buying habits when their neighbor gets lucky and wins a new car.

We are never the version of ourselves that is in control of our decisions and behaviors. How we think about the world and what we see when we look at ourselves, the people around us, and the situations we find ourselves in is influenced by the people around us. As Seneca describes, our friends and neighbors can make us feel certain ways, even if we never wanted to feel the way they make us feel. Situations that seem meaningless, like a neighbor buying a new car, can change the way we feel about ourselves.

This idea can be liberating in the sense that we don’t have to believe that we are fully in control of everything. We don’t have to believe that we operate as a completely independent and objective CEO, rationally making perfect decisions about everything. We can take some pressure off of ourselves.

At the same time, this idea can be frustrating. It says that no matter how much you try, things are going to influence you whether you want them to or not. It means that you may be out of luck if you try to change your behavior or try to see the world in a new way. You may have too many forces pushing on you for you to really get outside of the situation that you find yourself in.

Seneca continues, “You should not copy the bad simply because they are many, nor should you hate the many because they are unlike you. Withdraw into yourself, as far as you can. Associate with those who will make a better man of you. Welcome those whom you yourself can improve. The process is mutual; for men learn while they teach.” The advice Seneca gives as a reaction to our susceptibility to be influenced so heavily by the people and world around ourselves is to build to our self-awareness. Reflect deeply on how we act and behave and think about the ways we wish to act and behave. Find people who can be mentors and guides in living the life you think is meaningful, and then turn around and do what you can to help others, because you will learn more by helping others than just by doing. Recognize that you don’t have it all figured out on your own, and that you won’t always see everything happening around you, but try to build your awareness and try to focus on continual improvement. Not in a flashy way, but in a confident way that is always available for those wish to tap into it.

Mob Danger

I remember taking a psychology class in college and learning about the ways that human psychology changes when we are in large crowds. We are less likely to call the police when we see a crime being committed if we are around lots of other people in a public place. We become more extreme in our actions and behaviors than we would be on our own. In a sense, we give up our conscious reasoning and begin to act more like fish swimming in a school, reacting to everyone around us and not maintaining our individuality.

 

In his book Letters From a Stoic, Seneca writes about crowds, generally encouraging the man he was writing to stay away from them. The reason why Seneca encourages avoiding crowds is because they seem to create a pull toward vice in a way that being on ones own does not. Especially, Seneca says, we should avoid the games – as in gladiator battles where he describes the inhumane way that men and women at the event encouraged the slaughter of other human beings.

 

I think Seneca is correct in saying that being in large crowds encourages bad behaviors and can push us to act in ways that we otherwise would find abhorrent. But, I don’t think it is necessary for us to withdraw from crowds entirely. I think we should still participate in crowds and allow ourselves to be engaged with our culture, but we should approach crowds with a mindset that keeps us aware of what is taking place around us and how we are acting. Effectively, I think we should approach crowds with the mind of a journalist.

 

I work a lot of sporting events assisting the media department at the University of Nevada. I am deeply upset by how quickly men and women at sporting events will turn to insults profanity when they are upset by something that happened in a game. I feel almost as though I was the one insulted when I hear disgusting comments hurled at opposing teams and referees. Because I engage with reporters at the game and because I sit in a place where I cannot cheer, I have learned to look at the behaviors around me and to observe the event without feeling compelled to allow myself to be overcome with emotion and behave in a way that would embarrass my grandparents if they were sitting next to me.

 

Additionally, I am not religious but I do attend church services from time to time with my wife. I find that observing the service and bringing the mind of a journalist with me is helpful in that it allows me to learn, to try to connect dots between religion and what I try to develop as scientific empirical beliefs, and to observe how human connection can flourish in a religious context. Instead of brooding and rolling my eyes in the face of something I do not believe, I find that I can be more thoughtful and considerate if I am aware of my emotions and reactions and focus on being an observer rather than a direct participant. Both in the world of sports and in the world of religion, I find that I can be around crowds better when I approach the crowd with deep self-awareness and do my best to be cognizant of what is happening around me, the emotional reactions that are stirred up, and how other people are behaving relative to the baseline that I think is reasonable to maintain. I am cautious around crowds, but I don’t have to avoid them as Seneca encouraged, because there is a lot to learn about ourselves from large groups of people.

Seneca on Being Content With What We Have

“It is not the man who has too little, but the man who craves more, that is poor,” wrote Seneca in Letters to a Stoic. A big challenge in the United States today, and across the globe in our social media connected world, is being content with what we have. There is always a temptation to do and have more. We want to have the most exotic vacation photos on Facebook, we want to have the best decorations during the holidays, and we feel like we need to get a new car when the neighbor gets a new car. The things we possess and the memories we have become stale quickly and the remedy that we turn to first is purchasing more and going further.

 

Seneca continues, “What does it matter how much a man has laid up in his safe, or in his warehouse, how large are his flocks and how fat his dividends, if he covets his neighbor’s property, and reckons, not his past gains, but his hopes of gains to come? Do you ask what is the proper limit to wealth? It is, first, to have what is necessary, and, second, to have what is enough.”

 

A key theme of stoicism is that we cannot rely on standards and measures set by other people to determine our own value or whether we are successful. We cannot compare ourselves to other people who have had different opportunities and challenges in their own lives. The best we can hope for is good luck and to do the best with what we have. These ideas become very freeing and have become very popular following the great recession where many hard working individuals ran into an economic downturn and faced obstacles that were beyond their control. Defining success by things that can be measured from the outside always leaves you in a place where your own success is beyond your control.

 

Seneca would describe the state of needing other people’s approval and needing certain possessions to impress people as being in a state of true poverty. If you can only feel wealthy and successful because you have more than someone else, then you will never be able to enjoy the richness of life. Self-awareness and a deep focus on the world around us helps us to see great wonders in even the mundane and banal aspects of life. Having material and financial success is great and can make for a more exciting life, but you will never be able to enjoy that life if you cannot find your own value in who you are as a person separate from the adulation and praise of others. If you can only define success for yourself as somehow being more than another person, you will always live in poverty and fail to truly enjoy the moment you have and place you are at right now.