January 25, 2019

Dear Drama Observers,

I’ve become very intrigued of late with a concept called “motivated reasoning.” In his book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, social psychologist, Jonathan Haidt, notes:

“Psychologists now have file cabinets full of findings on “motivated reasoning,” showing the many tricks people use to reach the conclusions they want to reach… And now that we all have access to search engines on our cell phones, we can pull up a team of supportive scientists for almost any conclusion twenty-four hours a day… Science is a smorgasbord, and Google will guide you to the study that’s right for you.”

He continues,

They concluded that most of the bizarre and depressing research findings make perfect sense once you see reasoning as having evolved not to help us find truth but to help us engage in arguments, persuasion, and manipulation in the context of discussions with other people. As they put it, “Skilled arguers… are not after the truth but after arguments supporting their views.”

And then this:

In the same way, each individual reasoner is really good at one thing: finding evidence to support the position he or she already holds.

People sometimes argue their positions by saying, “Hey, I’m just telling you the facts.” And that might very well be accurate. But the facts to which they refer are only those that support their previously held conclusions.

Motivated reasoning occurs when you start with a conclusion, cherry pick the facts that support your conclusion, and disregard those that don’t. Having your conclusion now bolstered by facts, you argue your point by saying, “Hey, I’m just telling you the facts.” The chief motivation, it turns out, is not the pursuit of truth but winning the argument.

I would contend that we all do this from time to time, presumably without even realizing we’re doing it. I would also contend that Drama People use motivated reasoning, not by accident, but by intention. Winning, not truth, is the sought-for outcome.

The subtitle of this letter is, “In Relationships and Culture.” I have two illustrations of motivated reasoning, the first one from culture and the other one from relationships.

From Culture

Within the last week, an event occurred in Washington, D.C. about which you are undoubtedly aware unless you were visiting your winter home on Neptune and couldn’t get Internet service. “Side A” looked at the videos, read the accounts, listened to the interviews, and arrived at Conclusion A. This event was merely the latest example of what they’ve believed all along. And the facts supported it.

Meanwhile, “Side B” looked at the videos, read the accounts, listened to the interviews, and arrived at Conclusion B. This event was merely the latest example of what they’ve believed all along. And the facts supported it.

Not everyone did this to be sure. But the motivated reasoners on both sides loaded their duffle bags with cherry-picked facts and swung those overstuffed bags at the other side hoping to land some decisive blows. I once read that you can’t win arguments with facts alone. I have no doubt that this duffle bag skirmish will continue until another takes its place. So, stand by.

From Relationships

I had a client once whose husband was a Drama Person and was really good at it. In fact, if there were a local Drama Person chapter, he’d be president-for-life. She would sometimes fantasize about getting a T-shirt made with an arrow pointing to the side that read, “I’m With Horse’s Tail.” But she thought better of that. She stayed with him for a number of healthy reasons, I’m convinced. But he didn’t make it easy, his nasty side showing up far too often.

She constantly found herself upset by his offensive ways in which he’d trample over her feelings like the bulls of Pamplona stampeding the crowds. She’d display her upset by expressing hurt on some occasions and anger on others. Many times and in many ways, she tried to get across to this thick-skulled Neanderthal that treating her that way was not OK. He’d stop for a while only to start up again. In other words, he’d repent and repeat.

Somewhere along the way, he convinced himself of an erroneous conclusion: “My wife is overly sensitive.” He then became motivated to look for evidence supporting his conclusion. If she ever teared up after being stung by his verbal barbs, for instance, he’d say, “Oh, I’m sorry. Did I hurt your feelings,” with a tone of sarcastic condescension. The not-so-subtle implication was: “The problem here is not my words but your hypersensitivity. I’m in the right; you’re in the wrong.” He had little interest in the actual truth but had every interest in vindicating his rightness. This would make her want to twist off his head and spit in his neck. But that display of anger on her part would’ve simply reinforced his erroneous conclusion of her hypersensitivity. The Catch 22 expression, “I’m damned if I do and damned if I don’t,” describes just such a situation.

Is it any wonder she fantasized about the aforementioned T-shirt? Are you in such a relationship? I’m taking T-shirt orders… What’s your size?

Till next week.  

8 replies
  1. Richard Price
    Richard Price says:

    “From time to time”?
    How about, “much if the time” as first response? True for me, especially when I see/hear the odious (the one I’ve already concluded is odious).
    So, good doctor, what should I do?

  2. Adele
    Adele says:

    Agree, I suppose we all do this at times. It is refreshing to hear ourselves or others say the words, I don’t know.

  3. B.B. Cragon
    B.B. Cragon says:

    Alan, my long reaction comment (not here) on Facebook where I criticized the news media’s first reaction to the Catholic School student incident was deleted. Know anything about that? I can understand someone ignoring it, disagreeing with me and writing what they thought of what I wrote, but I cannot understand censorship, especially if it came from you. Hoping it did not. Maybe Facebook administrators?

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