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August 24, 2021

What is Motivated Reasoning?

I’ve been listening to an audiobook recently called ‘Thinking in bets’ by Annie Duke, and I came across a concept that I’ve since been thinking about all week.

Annie Duke is a cognitive psychology student turned professional poker player, and now a consultant on better decision-making.

In the book, she talks about how we all have a tendency to process new information in a way that supports our preexisting beliefs or motives.

Once our view is formed on something, we hold on to it tightly. In fact, we embrace new information that supports it and reject that which doesn’t.

For example, if we were to watch our favourite sports teams play, we’d likely support the referee's choices that favour our team, and challenge those that go against them.

Our motivation is to support our team; our reasoning is biased towards them.

Similarly, when we like someone, we’ll process their behaviour in a way that supports that liking, and ignore anything that would challenge those strong emotions.

This biased form of information processing is called ‘motivated reasoning’, something that aims to reduce the pain of ‘cognitive dissonance’ — the mental discomfort of holding conflicting beliefs.

Duke believes that we need to understand and appreciate motivated reasoning if we are to make better decisions.

And I believe she’s right.

Even if you’ve always appreciated the role of this cognitive bias, for me, placing a name on it has highlighted its existence, removing it from the sea of unnamed observations we encounter every day.

It can’t be fully eliminated, but it can be acknowledged and minimised, helping us to ultimately make better decisions.

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