More on motivated reasoning

Building somewhat on yesterday’s post, last night I was involved in a discussion of cell phones. But we were not debating the likelihood of cell phones causing cancer, nor the problems of texting. Instead, I was watching two friends try to convince each other that their respective cell phone choices – an Android vs. an iPhone 4 – was the better phone.

After a relatively long debate, I stepped in to point out that each were unlikely to change each others’ mind – and in fact that research, such as that I pointed to in yesterday’s post about the ability of corrections to backfire, would lead us to suspect that they would ultimately polarize and each become more firmly convinced of the rightness of their own choice. One of the debaters, however, countered this point, suggesting that the discussion could only expose them to new ideas and to develop their own understanding of the benefits and drawbacks of each.

This is a good point. Deliberation theorists would like us to believe that exposure to others’ views can be a very good thing, letting us come to know our own arguments better while also exposing us to knowledge of others’ views. But in what circumstances is this reasonable exchange more likely? And how can we reconcile this with the inevitable knowledge that people become attached to their viewpoints, especially once they’ve committed themselves to a particular course? Indeed, it is this commitment and inability to change which is at the heart of cognitive dissonance – because we don’t want to admit that we are wrong, especially when a decision is hard to revoke.

In my opinion, cell phone ownership is likely to belong in the latter camp. Cell phones tend to be very expensive and are often coupled with extended contracts with one service or another that can be difficult to break. Thus, if someone admits that the other phone (one that they didn’t select or that isn’t available through their provider) is better, they are stuck with something that they can’t get out of, at least not without significant cost. This is true for most of the major decisions in life – cars, politics, and firmly-held issue positions, for anything that we are likely to debate about we are also likely to have a committed opinion on.

But in this discussion, little was at stake. Both participants acknowledged their biases and the slim likelihood that they would change their mind. So is this the only way such debate can work? When both sides acknowledge that they are unlikely to be persuaded, but are open to new information? And of what value is that information, then, if people remain ultimately committed to the same course of action that they started with? Finally, can we use this idea – of a conversation to inform but not persuade, where each side can make small concessions without admitting an entire decision is at fault – to better develop open political debate? Because something is needed to prevent the instant polarization and the inevitable gridlock that characterizes so much of the political debate in our country today.


  1. Hi Emily,


    Hypothetically ones ego was at stake in the argument. This is at stake whenever someone admits they are wrong, and changing your mind is sometimes viewed as making a mistake. So even in this discussion something was at stake.

    Experts say presenting advice, opinions, whatever is best if it is presented as information. Then the parties can make their own decision. For cell phones some people might not care how awesome an iPhone 4 is, they ultimately hate ATT and no matter how great the iPhone is they cannot get over that fact. Or someone might love Google and think that Android is the coolest thing since sliced bread.

    Debate and decision making is a tough sell as each person values issues differently and views things differently. That is not even touching on baises, unwillingness to change, and the listeners feeling towards the speaker. Lastly you forget it is easier to keep doing what you have done than it is to make a change. The devil you know syndrome.

  2. Congratulations on being the first (of many?) to comment on my blog! I wish I could say that there was some kind of prize, but you’ll just have to make do with gratitude and notoriety.

    You’re right (I know you love hearing that), ego is almost always at stake when someone is making an argument, especially when they are admitting they are wrong. And this is a point that Tarvis and Aronson make in their recent book, “Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me)”, who argue that the best way of reducing dissonance is by society making it easier to admit that they are wrong. But in the grand scheme of things, this discussion probably remained relatively low-involvement and low ego-involvement. There wasn’t much at stake and, as a debate among friends, the debaters probably weren’t risking much, either in terms of friendship, status, or again, ability to change their mind.

    I also really like the advice as making it sound like you are offering information, rather than a persuasive argument. It’s something to consider in terms of political debate – do you think that trying to make it sound like you are offering advice (i.e. “Did you know that Democrats’ financial plan does X” or “Actually, the Republican energy bill doesn’t do X, but does address Y”) will actually be effective in limiting motivated or biased reasoning?

    • Hi Emily,

      I do not think that information matters, with regard to politics, as sad as that is. With news agencies muddying the waters it seems the truth has been lost and what bills do what things are up for debate. Politics and religion are how they are to stay how they are. If politics were really an open debate, using logic and reason, this country would be a much better place.

      Do you think that offering information helps change people’s minds, or even inform them?

      • This is an interesting question, and one that my colleague Mitchell Bard is interested in studying. He has a paper about what I believe he calls “knowledge ghettos,” making the argument that the “truth” no longer exists, but instead is a commodity that differs depending on where you get your information.

        And sometimes people are very open to new information, but other times they are not. I think commitment is the key distinction: once people are committed to an idea, a policy, etc., they are motivated to defend that belief, even against contradictory information – a notion that is at the heart of cognitive dissonance theory. At the same time, before people have made up their minds, information is something that they will seek out and carefully consider. I think that we might be able to bring this mentality to politics if we try to frame the decisions without bringing up people’s commitments – a hard task given people’s enduring party affiliations and the rather partisan nature of politics today. But if we can allow people to learn the facts without this strong commitment, it may be possible for new information to be used in making a decision.

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