Motivated Reasoning and the Act of Obliteration

I continue to explore the notion of motivated reasoning and whether there is hope of overcoming the deep societal divide on political issues as empirical evidence separating fact from fiction mounts.

Adherence to views central to identity drives people toward sources of information that confirm their existing perspectives. Furthermore, people resist correcting misinformation. As one set of scholars studying this phenomenon note, “research indicates that corrective information often fails to change the false or unsupported belief in question, especially when the targeted misperception is highly salient.”

A critical question confronting us, then, concerns the conditions under which those holding beliefs central to their identity might revise their views in the face of strongly contradictory evidence.

Some researchers have identified mechanisms that might break through motivated reasoning.

Earlier this year, communications scholars at Boston University found from experiments with videos on climate change that skeptics were more likely to change their views when seeing damaging climate change impact in close geographical proximity, making the evidence less abstract.

In a fascinating 1955 book, When Prophecy Fails, researchers from the Laboratory for Research in Social Relations at the University of Minnesota studied an extreme instance of motivated reasoning, in which a small group of people embraced a prophecy involving their rescue from outer space from an upcoming cataclysmic flood. When the appointed flood (and extraterrestrial salvation) did not materialize on the appointed date, most of the followers in fact intensified their proselytizing. But a small number of former believers began to retreat from their views. The researchers found that in contrast with the former group, the latter individuals had been extracted from the social milieu reinforcing their original views, and were simply physically isolated from other adherents.

But how in such a deeply polarized and politicized environment saturated in social media is an equivalent “social isolation” effect possible?

Research on interactions between Twitter users, for example, suggests that while not all interactions are ideologically polarized, such polarization becomes highly pronounced for discussion of political issues (such as elections, government shutdown, the State of the Union address, e.g.).

These researchers find that for specific traumatic events – like the Newtown school shooting of 2012 – discussions that begin as information exchanges become highly polarized as they evolve into political debates about causes and remedies (i.e., gun control).

On Saturday I was at a social gathering which included many people I did not know. As I approached two men in the midst of discussion, prepared to introduce myself and join in, I overhead one make reference to “how unfair the whole thing is, since there is no evidence at all.” The man listening nodded vigorously in agreement. They were discussing the Kavanaugh Supreme Court nomination and the allegation of Christine Blasey Ford that Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her when they were teenagers. Since this was a polite social gathering, I steered clear.

However, I’ve been thinking about this brief encounter ever since. Echoing a position heard frequently from conservative politicians and media sources, these two men do not consider Ford’s specific and detailed allegation as “evidence,” which of course it is (not to mention that there already is some additional evidence in the record).

In one stroke, they obliterated Ford’s existence, rendering the allegation simply a trick conjured by the political opposition.

I wondered whether it would have been best to break in to the conversation to offer an alternative perspective. Would my intervention have burst their self-reinforcing bubble, encouraging them to consider an alternative view? Or would they have instead, when learning that I am a professor, latched on to this fact to conclude that I suffer from liberal delusions and the disease of “political correctness,” further reinforcing their shared view?

And I continue to wonder: when Dr. Ford testifies this coming week, will they listen to the evidence? Will they approach her testimony with the understanding that her vivid recollection of the event, but not of the ancillary details of precise date and location are entirely consistent with everything known about sexual assault and memory?

Will they consider the possibility that she may well be telling the truth, and that Kavanaugh rather than Ford may be lying here (just as those of us inclined to believe Dr. Ford should be willing to conclude that the evidence is not compelling if warranted)? Or will they – as many others unwilling to look beyond their politically-driven conviction that Kavanaugh is “a good man” and a reliably conservative judge —  simply adjust their rationale for rejecting Christine Blasey Ford’s story?

Unfortunately, I fear I know the answer.

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