Motivated Reasoning

I've spoken before on the topic of cognitive dissonance. This occurs when you are asked to believe in or work towards mutually exclusive objectives. If the one is true, the other must be false, yet you are asked to believe both. While this happens all the time, I spoke primarily how cognitive dissonance sets up a negative feedback loop between leaders and employees, particularly during times of change, and argued that as a leader it is better acknowledge the conflict than to tell people two things you know to be mutually contradictory. Cognitive dissonance erodes trust and therefore influence. But even in the face of extreme cognitive dissonance -- even confronting blatant hypocrisy -- people often still believe. Why?

One culprit that I've been researching recently is motivated reasoning. A nice quote from Wiki: "The processes of motivated reasoning are a type of inferred justification strategy which is used to mitigate cognitive dissonance. When people form and cling to false beliefs despite overwhelming evidence, the phenomena is labeled "motivated reasoning." The dissonance emerges from holding that belief despite overwhelming evidence. I believe that the earth is flat despite overwhelming evidence that it is not. I believe that vaccines cause autism despite overwhelming data that proves that they do not. Why? Because you have a reason. Something under the covers in your brain is saying I need to believe this thing more than I need to believe the evidence of my senses. You are motivated at the deepest level to believe the untruth.

In the context of a work environment, we see motivated reasoning applied to justify continuing when everything in your experience and your training tells you to stop. We all have examples, but some classic ones to elucidate the point: continuing to work on a project even though it will never achieve the desired outcome, continuing to work on a project deadline which you categorically know is absurd, continuing to work in a toxic work environment which is making you physically unhealthy, working on two projects one of which will make the other impossible to achieve and vice versa, believing that a leader, a manager, a board, or other stakeholder will change their mind if given new information when not once have they ever done so in the past. We persist in moving forward in all of these situations because we talk ourselves into believing that it is a good idea to do so. We are motivated to believe that this is the right course of action.

At work, there is a lot at stake to motivate us towards the absurd and unattainable. We need an income. To buck the system might undermine our reputation or erode trust placed in us. Everyone is doing it, so it must be right. While the leader or company or objective is shite, the work I do personally is so cool and interesting and professionally satisfying, I don't want to give it up. Variations of imposter syndrome where we start to question our experience and training in the face of overwhelming evidence that everyone else appears willing to believe something insane. We need to get along to get along, we need to be a team player, we need to get that reference or that bonus at the end of the year. We have lots of reasons, and so it is not all that difficult really for us to talk ourselves into believing virtually any damn thing if it means we can continue.

The problem with all of this is that I think we don't actually believe our own bullsh*. On the surface, yes. We can do days, weeks, months just plugging along buying the story we're telling and simply persisting. However, I think underneath it all the fundamental untruth of it erodes us at a soul deep level. This manifests in 'burnout', unhappiness, stress, constant 'busyness', failures to take action on issues in our private life.  The sheer futility of working towards an unattainable goal breeds a sense of treadmill, rat race, frustration, and ennui. The whole thing is so psychologically toxic, I'm not entirely certain why we don't just break out in spots and start collapsing in the streets.

I want to believe, so I do... until I can't. Suddenly, bam! I'm standing at the entrance to my office with a churning stomach and a deep headache wondering how it got so bad so quickly. It didn't. It was bad all along but we spend so much energy suppressing good sense in the name of getting along that we literally burn out every cell in our bodies before we're willing to admit that the entire enterprise is a complete fustercluck.

So is motivated reasoning inherently bad? Or wrong? I don't think so. I think it has a place. We need sometimes to just put our heads down and Do the Thing even when we know it's dumb. We need to believe in our leaders even when we think they are making a big mistake. But for our own health -- and for the health of our organisations, our communities, our body politic -- we need to at some point pull ourselves up and have a big Whoa moment. Admit that we are doing the Thing not because it is the right thing to do but because at this time and in this place it is the thing we need to do... even in the face of overwhelming evidence that another course of action makes a lot more sense.

Finally... because I simply can't let this one go... we can't allow motivated reasoning to set us on a path that hurts other people. It is not okay to talk yourself into believing complete asshatery when even just your belief in that thing harms. In the category of things it's okay to talk yourself into believing, I'd put a flat earth, benevolent gods, and pets that really truly love us. You don't hurt anyone with any of that. In the category of things you just need to snap out of are anti-science nonsense about vaccines or climate change, all members of a group of people (race, religion, sexual orientation, etc) are bad actors, and free speech is an absolute right with no possibility of abridgement. Your unwillingness to face into hard truths -- your motivated reason to believe a thing in the face of overwhelming evidence of that thing's untruth -- cannot continue if it hurts someone else.

"No passion so effectually robs the mind of all its powers of acting and reasoning as fear." ~ Edmond Burke


Hey readers, got a peer or friend who wants to learn more about change? I'm about to embark on a series on logical fallacies and their appearance in change processes and leadership. Might be a good time to subscribe at