Fake News and Alternative Facts are Contingent on your Perspective: A Discussion of Motivated Reasoning

May 20, 2017

Fake news is an abundant commodity in public discourse these days.  The reality of the situation is that all of us are hurt by it.  By acknowledging the existence of untenable facts, it gives permission to everyone to ignore hard and fast evidence, and thus justification to hunker down in the echo chambers of their political and moral beliefs.  Believe it or not, it is these moral and political underpinnings that give fake news its leverage.  Here is a  surprising real fact – the root of the problem is in your head in the form of a cognitive bias.

 

The scientific term for this bias is called Motivated Reasoning.  Before I explain it, let me state that Motivated Reasoning is universal and automatic; therefore, regardless of who you are, how intelligent you think you are, and what your political perspective is, YOU are vulnerable to it’s impact.

 

Here are some definitions of Motivated Reasoning:

  • Motivated reasoning is a form of reasoning in which people access, construct, and evaluate arguments in a biased fashion to arrive at or endorse a preferred conclusion.1

  • Motivated reasoning leads people to confirm what they already believe, while ignoring contrary data. But it also drives people to develop elaborate rationalizations to justify holding beliefs that logic and evidence have shown to be wrong.2

  • … motivated reasoning, … describes our tendency to accept what we want to believe with much more ease and much less analysis than what we don’t want to believe.3

Here are the key things to keep in mind about Motivated Reasoning:

  1. this bias leads us to accept what we want to believe
  2. we do so while ignoring contrary evidence, and empirically established facts
  3. we do so while developing elaborate rationalizations in order to justify such biases
  4. we do it with ease, meaning that it is automatic – it is occurring subconsciously

I have written about related concepts that serve as the foundation of this tendency.  First, there is the concept of Confirmation Bias which is the automatic inclination to take in, and accept as true, information that supports our belief systems, and miss, ignore, or discount information that runs contrary to our beliefs.4   It leads us to “believe” things like that full moons directly influence people’s behavior (which is not supported by empirical evidence).  “It shapes our religious and political beliefs, our parenting choices, our teaching strategies, and our romantic and social relationships.  It also plays a significant role in the development of stereotypes and the maintenance of prejudices.”Secondly there is Spinoza’s Conjecture.  “Benedict Spinoza, a 17th-century Dutch philosopher, wrote with great insight that “mere comprehension of a statement entails the tacit acceptance of it being true, whereas disbelief requires a subsequent process of rejection.”  What this suggests is that we are likely to accept, as true, a statement that makes immediate sense to us. But we can also infer that we are, in general, unlikely to critically scrutinize such logical statements.  A further implication is that we are likely to reject statements that don’t make immediate sense to us.”5

 

By appreciating the concepts of Confirmation Bias and Spinoza’s Conjecture one is inclined to gain a deep understanding of Motivated Reasoning.  At the basis of each of these concepts are one’s beliefs or what one believes to be true.  A belief is defined as “an acceptance that something exists or is true, especially one without proof.” Belief is something that often necessarily involves a leap of faith, like a belief in God, or the acceptance of a particular political ideology.  Beliefs are generally thought to be influenced by morality.  And with regard to politics, there is evidence to suggest that political beliefs “… are often guided by our Moral Foundations.7”  According to Jonathon Haidt, a prominent Social Psychologist, there are five universal moralsHaidt’s research has indicated that liberals tend to value two of those morals (care and fairness), at a higher level than their conservative counterparts, and likewise compared to conservatives, hold a lower valuation of the other three (ingroup loyalty, authority and purity/sanctity).8   In related research Haidt9 has found that liberals value the rights and welfare of all individuals and tend to express “widespread human concern about caring, nurturing, and protecting vulnerable individuals from harm.”  Conservatives instead, express moral proclivities that “emphasize social cohesiveness and social order with a focus on loyalty, obedience, duty, self-restraint, respect of authority, piety, self-sacrifice for the group, vigilance for traitors or free-loaders, and orderly cultural boundaries.”

 

Another difference between those with liberal versus conservative ideological notions is related to future focus as opposed to a nostalgic one.  Whereas liberals tend to be inspired by “Hope and Change,” with a focus on making things better than they have ever been, conservatives tend to be nostalgic, seeing society’s trajectory as being regressive.  Conservatives tend to value the past and want to get back to it (e.g., “Make America Great Again“).

 

Granted, these are just a few of many variables that drive Motivated Reasoning.  The point is that there are a number of complicated factors that set people up for opposing beliefs.  These differences in perspective fuel our cognitive biases, and greatly affect what we are likely to accept as true.  From this evolves the concept of “truthiness” whereby people, regardless of ideology, accept information as being true, particularly if it supports their already held beliefs, and reject as “Fake” those facts that place their beliefs in doubt.

 

So how do we get around this automatic inclination?  The first step is to accept the concept of Motivated Reasoning as being real.  If you do not, facts and truth are irrelevant to you, and you are beyond hope.  If you can accept this reality, then you need to be willing step back from your deep convictions and open yourself up to seeing how those convictions shape your ingestion and acceptance of information.  Secondly, you need to critically evaluate the sources of your information.  There are news organizations out there that prosper from feeding Motivated Reasoning.   Here’s the rub, your Motivated Reasoning will distort your perspective on what news sources to trust.  Again, at the risk of being redundant, I urge you to keep in mind that your deeply held beliefs set you up for erroneous thinking.  It is ideology that is the culprit.  Finally, you must embrace evidence, and gather facts from sources that value evidence over ideology.

 

All of this is difficult, necessitating much cognitive effort, and the process is likely to make you feel uncomfortable.  Here is a hint, avoid cable news, particularly those networks with clear political objectives (you know who they are).  Below I have listed a few articles and sites to help you in your efforts to overcome your natural brain biases.  By gathering evidenced based information, and by avoiding inherently biased news, you will expand your understanding of the complexities of our world.  The discomfort you will likely experience by doing so, is called cognitive dissonance.  It is avoidance of that dissonance that keeps you in your echo chamber and susceptible to alternative facts.  The only way around this bias is to push through the pain: and only by experiencing that discomfort, will you be able to accurately reject fake news.

Tools for assessing the veracity of your preferred news outlets:

  1. Forbes 10 Journalism Brands Where You Find Real Facts Rather Than Alternative Facts10 
  2. Media Bias Fact Check11
    1. Pro-Science
    2. Least Biased
    3. Left-Center Bias
    4. Left Bias
    5. Right-Center Bias
    6. Right Bias
  3. FactCheck.org12

 

References

  1.  Motivated Reasoning Psychology Reference and Research: https://psychology.iresearchnet.com/social-psychology/attitudes/motivated-reasoning/
  2. Motivated Reasoning The Skeptic’s Dictionary: http://skepdic.com/motivatedreasoning.html
  3. Psychology’s Treacherous Trio: Confirmation Bias, Cognitive Dissonance, and Motivated Reasoning Why We Reason: https://whywereason.com/2011/09/07/psychologys-treacherous-trio-confirmation-bias-cognitive-dissonance-and-motivated-reasoning/

  4. Confirmation Bias How Do You Think? http://geraldguild.com/blog/2010/01/29/confirmation-bias/

  5. Spinoza’s Conjecture How Do You Think?  http://geraldguild.com/blog/2010/01/22/spinozas-conjecture

  6. Definition of belief: English Oxford Dictionary: https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/belief
  7. Haidt, J. (2008). What Makes People Vote Republican? http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/haidt08/haidt08_index.html
  8. Moral Foundations Theory How Do You Think? http://geraldguild.com/blog/2010/09/24/moral-foundations-theory/
  9. Graham, J., Haidt, J., and Nosek, B. (2009). Liberals and conservatives rely on different moral foundations. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 96, No. 5, 1029–1046
  10. Forbes 10 Journalism Brands Where You Find Real Facts Rather Than Alternative Facts
  11. Media Bias Fact Check
  12. FactCheck.org
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