by Greg Robie
The cognitive dynamic of motivated reasoning is the means by which an irrational process masquerades as a rational one and we are fooled, willingly. It tends to be engaged in when the subject matter heightens feelings, such as a perceived threat to a child. Even if the real risk is insignificant, heightened vigilance is disproportionately affected until long after the exact nature of the threat has been resolved. It doesn’t matter that the threat is insignificant. If the threat feels significant, it is. Any irrationality of this feeling is, because it’s my child, simply irrelevant. The feeling is trusted. For a while, perception becomes undeniable reality. A few kids live longer lives because of this dynamic, but more than a few kids are psychologically traumatized by phobias due to it as well.
Another iteration of motivated reasoning also relates to trusted feelings. A cultural norm may be obsolete, but moving away from it is resisted. The comforting social dynamics associated with it are valued and known. The shift in feelings involved in eliminating such a norm is both hard work and socially disruptive. It is easier to keep doing things a traditional way — if it’s no big deal — than upsetting the apple cart and developing and implementing a different or new norm that evokes the same desired feelings.
Consider this nation’s melting-pot dynamics around social celebrations like Christmas. An immigrant’s attempts to assimilate into the dominant culture tend to transform familiar public cultural traditions into private ones. Dominant ones are adopted with the wish that one will fit in, while the ones that used to trustworthily affect that feeling are relegated to a relatively private practice.
Because the dominant culture associates Christmas with good will, and as an ancillary dynamic within those that fell prey to Jim Crow and Comstock laws, and a number of social taboos, Christmas has become an amalgam of holidays within the consumeristic paradigm of gift giving. But the current politically correct phrase “happy holidays” — a long time in the making — satisfies few.
Motivated reasoning is a field of study within neuroscience and social psychology that, while in its infancy, explores the role of the brain and neuropeptides in cognitive thought processes like the above examples, though they are too multifaceted to be studied at this point in the field’s development. What has been observed to date suggests that when there is a contradiction between observable fact and trusted feeling, and those feelings are elevated ones, our brains engage in a cognitive process whereby the trusted feelings are deferred to but the brain is ‘fooled’ to feel the rationalization is the consequence of a rational process (at least for men). Additional studies may show that for women this non-rational cognitive process is more nuanced and normative, but, at least as it relates to men, it is insightful relative to social dynamics and the twin social crises that environmental and economic collapse represent.
To the degree Guy’s assessments regarding reality in matters of climate change, the environment, and the dominant economic meme are rational — that an infinite growth paradigm on a finite planet, as a trusted economic paradigm, is environmental suicide — the existence of a non-rational cognitive process that can successfully masquerade as a rational one goes a long way toward explaining the failures he has experienced to nurture rational thought and behavior. And he is not alone.
Blogging is somewhat interactive but, as those who faithfully blog and comment can attest, it is depressing to accept that its current form as a social tool for change is “as-good-as-it-gets.” With the intent of pushing the envelope a bit, consider this post an invitation to a virtual self-organizing conference on motivated reasoning. With the title of this essay doubling as conference title, and using the guidelines of Open Space Technology for organizing and participating in the conference, please offer descriptions of workshops that you would like to facilitate at this ‘conference.’ Give your workshop a title and write a brief description of what it will cover. By default, the workshop will unfold as a thread in this space but, if you have your own blog and would prefer to host your workshop there, provide a link so participants can find their way to it.
To make the blog interface more user-friendly as a conference format, email the volunteer facilitator the workshop title and a link to its location once it is posted. A list of workshops titles with links will be added to this initial entry so that the obstacle of scrolling through comments to find workshops of interest will be eliminated. At the conclusion of your workshop, write a summary of what came out of it and post it in your workshop’s thread. Finally, email the facilitator a link for inclusion in this opening entry next to its title for sharing your workshop’s conclusion, and to signify its conclusion to others.
Since this is likely a new experience for all of us, let’s arbitrarily close workshop offerings at the end of the upcoming solstice, and wrap up the workshops and share summaries before the start of 2013. Since we’re human, miss-postings are inevitable. When this happens, alert this blog’s moderator and be patient as things get corrected and sorted out.
Also, invite others to join in this conference. It would appear that social networking dynamics strongly reinforce various iterations of motivated reasoning that define social memes. To the degree this is true, a better understanding of motivated reasoning’s reach and dynamics could lead to strategic insights regarding social change that are current hidden in plain – rational — sight. The potential presenters and participants in this conference among our various networks likely are myriad.
Motivated Reasoning: Savior or Sycophant?
An Open Space Technology self-organizing conference
19-31 December 2012
Workshops, facilitator(s), and closing reports (if any):
1. How motivated reasoning may be the bane of my existence, Guy McPherson, facilitator, email@example.com
2. Homeostasis, and the role of motivated reasoning, Greg Robie, facilitator, firstname.lastname@example.org
3. The role of motivated reasoning in an apostate church relative to environmental, social, and economic justice, Greg Robie, facilitator, email@example.com
In the collapsing paradigm it is a biography that markets oneself; establishes authenticity and authority; implies value. In the next one, which this concept and invitation is offered from, it is what one does that is authentic. And motivated reasoning withstanding, such is also true within the collapsing paradigm as well. Who Greg Robie is, in the context of this essay, is measured by what is learned and done together because of it. The rest is ego, a delusion, and of little consequence.
Same-day update: Each of the three workshops has been given a separate post. Please comment accordingly.