Chris Mooney, author of The Republican Brain, has a new article in Mother Jones based on his earlier research into motivated reasoning in politics. Thank heavens Mooney wrote the book on this subject, because if he hadn’t done it, we would have had to. Mooney is a journalist who sees his job as trying to understand and explain the psychology of climate science denial. At First Person Politics, our job is to help you figure out what to do about it. In any case, here’s just a brief taste of his work:
The theory of motivated reasoning builds on a key insight of modern neuroscience (PDF): Reasoning is actually suffused with emotion (or what researchers often call â€œaffectâ€). Not only are the two inseparable, but our positive or negative feelings about people, things, and ideas arise much more rapidly than our conscious thoughts, in a matter of millisecondsâ€”fast enough to detect with an EEG device, but long before weâ€™re aware of it. That shouldnâ€™t be surprising: Evolution required us to react very quickly to stimuli in our environment. Itâ€™s a â€œbasic human survival skill,â€ explains political scientist Arthur Lupia of the University of Michigan. We push threatening information away; we pull friendly information close. We apply fight-or-flight reflexes not only to predators, but to data itself.
Consider a person who has heard about a scientific discovery that deeply challenges her belief in divine creationâ€”a new hominid, say, that confirms our evolutionary origins. What happens next, explains political scientist Charles Taber of Stony Brook University, is a subconscious negative response to the new informationâ€”and that response, in turn, guides the type of memories and associations formed in the conscious mind. â€œThey retrieve thoughts that are consistent with their previous beliefs,â€ says Taber, â€œand that will lead them to build an argument and challenge what theyâ€™re hearing.â€
In other words, when we think weâ€™re reasoning, we may instead be rationalizing. Or to use an analogy offered by University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt: We may think weâ€™re being scientists, but weâ€™re actually being lawyers (PDF). Our â€œreasoningâ€ is a means to a predetermined endâ€”winning our â€œcaseâ€â€”and is shot through with biases. They include â€œconfirmation bias,â€ in which we give greater heed to evidence and arguments that bolster our beliefs, and â€œdisconfirmation bias,â€ in which we expend disproportionate energy trying to debunk or refute views and arguments that we find uncongenial.
Thatâ€™s a lot of jargon, but we all understand these mechanisms when it comes to interpersonal relationships. If I donâ€™t want to believe that my spouse is being unfaithful, or that my child is a bully, I can go to great lengths to explain away behavior that seems obvious to everybody elseâ€”everybody who isnâ€™t too emotionally invested to accept it, anyway. Thatâ€™s not to suggest that we arenâ€™t also motivated to perceive the world accuratelyâ€”we are. Or that we never change our mindsâ€”we do. Itâ€™s just that we have other important goals besides accuracyâ€”including identity affirmation and protecting oneâ€™s sense of selfâ€”and often those make us highly resistant to changing our beliefs when the facts say we should.
Read the whole thing. We’ve written about motivated reasoning, rationalization, and the need for validation before, because these psychological processes are so crucial to understanding how politics works and how to win hearts and minds. Political psychologists owe Chris Mooney a huge debt of gratitude for bringing these concepts to the attention of a wider audience.
Chris, if you’re reading, keep up the great work!