It’s hard to win an argument these days. You can present scientific studies, historical evidence, and even pictures or videos to back up your words, but some people just won’t budge from their position. And some of those people have some pretty strange ideas, from flat-earthers to the “Avril Lavigne Is Dead” conspiracy theorists (yes, that really is a thing). Have you ever wondered why people refuse to change their beliefs, no matter how outlandish, even when faced with cold, hard facts? Well, it turns out that “motivated reasoning” is to blame — and we’re all guilty of it.
Psychologist Leon Festinger observed in 1956 that people are more likely to arrive at conclusions that they want to reach. This might sound obvious, but the lengths our brains will go to believe those conclusions are vast. When we want to believe something, we search for supporting evidence, and if we find even a single piece of pseudo-evidence, then we give ourselves permission to believe — a justification that lets us allow ourselves to stop thinking. This emotion-biased decisionmaking phenomenon is called “motivated reasoning,” and it’s based on the idea that emotions and motives trump facts and evidence. As social psychologist Jonathan Haidt once wrote, “the reasoning process is more like a lawyer defending a client than a judge or scientist seeking truth.”
The power of motivated reasoning is hard to overstate. In a 1986 study, subjects who scored poorly on an IQ test later chose to read articles criticizing the validity of IQ tests, as opposed to articles supporting them. In a 1992 study involving a health test, participants who received an undesirable prognosis found more reasons why the test results might not be accurate versus other, healthier participants. Motivated reasoning can even influence what a person physically sees: Subjects in a 2006 study were more likely to interpret an ambiguous symbol on a screen as a letter rather than a number when they were given an incentive in advance to do so.
In Haidt’s landmark book “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion,” he sums up why motivated reasoning can cause a headache for scientists in particular: “now that we all have access to search engines on our cell phones, we can call up a team of supportive scientists for almost any conclusion twenty-four hours a day. Whatever you want to believe about the causes of global warming or whether a fetus can feel pain, just Google your belief … Science is a smorgasbord, and Google will guide you to the study that’s right for you.”
If even the smartest among us are guilty of motivated reasoning, and it’s easier than ever to find evidence to support our beliefs, then how do we combat motivated reasoning? Various theories have sprung up around the web on how to argue with a motivated opponent, with the Socratic Method being a particularly compelling option. When it comes to saving yourself from this habit, scientific skepticism is a good place to start — but it’s not easy.