Motivated Reasoning – How To Dissipate Cognitive Dissonance

At dinner the other night, Leeno brought-up the concept of Motivated Reasoning in the context of addressing feelings of cognitive dissonance. I had previously thought about the mechanism by which someone moves forward with an illogical assumption or belief in-spite of their level of intelligence or ability to collect information and draw objective conclusions.

An example would be the belief that you can have a cheat meal because you spent 20 minutes on the treadmill. If you want to avoid gaining weight, generally you need to exercise or burn off more calories than you eat. 20 minutes on a treadmill will burning off about 150 calories which isn’t enough for a meal.

Motivated reasoning comes into play when we are seeking evidence to support or refute our preexisting beliefs. In fact, holding a particular point of view will very often determine where we look and what we are open to accept as “truth”. It can make us very subjective, judgmental and wrong. The decisions it can lead us to can shorten the length and lower the quality of life.

We seek out view points or evidence that supports our way of thinking because we tend to dislike being wrong or having to face and consider evidence that isn’t compatible. Other than being motivated to avoid the pain associated with the feelings of discomfort associated with opposing points of view, we are also motivated to experience pleasure, pleasure that tends to accompany being “right” about things – remember, the human brain is constantly searching for patterns that match past experience, and with every match there is a release of reward chemicals.

It is for these reason why intelligent people will hold onto ideas / beliefs that are false and run against their better judgment. To combat this tendency, it is important to maintain an open mind when faced with any information, particularly that which confirms what we believe. Given that we seek-out information that supports our point of view and that this information will cause the release of reward chemicals, it is almost impossible to remain spontaneously objective.

This creates a dangerous situation in that an individual can easily be manipulated by those who put forward information that goes along with their existing belief – blinded by the chemical high, their ability to process facts is severely diminished. A group of people can be wiped into a frenzy if they share a belief and someone is able to massage this belief.

When faced with evidence that goes along with your point of view, take a moment to consider it with the same scrutiny you would consider any information. Remain focused and aware of the fact that those sharing the information have the same tendency to lose objectivity when faced with information that confirms their belief. What appears to be evidence may simply be opinion shared by one person to another.