Psychologists have raised doubts about whether we can reliably reason our way to true beliefs. Numerous studies suggest we’re prone to “motivated reasoning.” We sometimes argue against the facts due to unconscious goals that don’t aim at the truth.
The New Yorker and Vox interviewed Brendan Nyhan and Dan Kahan, respectively, two researchers who study reasoning that’s motivated by a threatened sense of self. Kahan calls it “identity-protective cognition.” When facts clash with values that define a person’s sense of who she is, she’ll tend to “subconsciously resist” the facts and devise arguments against them.
Kahan and Nyhan suggest ways to manage this sort of motivated reasoning, particularly its impact on public debate about scientific issues like climate change and vaccines. Nyhan endorses a science communication strategy that “avoids any broader issues of identity.” Kahan recommends one that “affirms rather than threatens people’s values.” I’ll explain both approaches. I’ll then discuss another part of dealing with motivated reasoning—correcting the false beliefs it supports.
Kahan says identity-based motivated reasoning aims to protect us from “[cognitive] dissonance and estrangement from valued groups.” When information contradicts our worldview, it unsettles once settled beliefs and destabilizes social bonds built on a now imperiled perspective. We may feel pushed to become supporters of practices (e.g., increased/decreased government regulation) or groups (e.g., Democrats/Republicans) we oppose. So we’ll tend to push back. We’ll reject the facts rather than reverse our views.
To avoid picking a fight the facts will likely lose, Nyhan thinks we might try presenting the facts in a way that is identity-neutral. In The New Yorker, Nyhan discusses how the CDC and FDA could use such an approach to warn people against joining the “raw-milk movement.” He sees merit in saying, for instance, that “pasteurized milk has kept children healthy for a hundred years.” This statement appears to lack any political or ideological orientation. I would add that it still invokes people’s values. But it appeals to a value—namely, children’s health—that is very widely shared.
Children’s health is also at stake in the vaccine debate. Many parents think childhood vaccines, especially the MMR vaccine, may be unsafe. Nyhan thinks the vaccine safety “issue is already so personalized in such a public way” that the CDC and FDA will have a hard time correcting people’s views. Still, Nyhan sees reason for hope. Vaccines, he says, “aren’t inherently linked to ideology.” Thus, consensus among a diversity of opinion leaders (political, religious, etc.) can more easily emerge. Consensus signals unity, seemingly sidestepping divisions that may trigger motivated reasoning based on identity.