Tag Archives: motivated reasoning

Don’t Count on Straight Line Effects

Blame our desire for simple cause and effect reasoning.  

Anyone who spends a lot of time thinking about how Americans are persuaded will have no shortage of suggested strategies for particular situations.  “Strategic Communication” is its own distinct sub-area of the communication field, mostly predicated on the idea that certain rhetorical inputs are likely to lead to particular effects.  Most of us employ some version of this model.  For example, you may be confident about predicting what will happen when you push Uncle Fred’s hot buttons.

Researchers in the 1930’s looking at the effects of film content on audiences similarly assumed large and uniform results:  “magic bullets” that would work on  most members in the same way. In our time, we may think that reminding a supporter that Trump’s actions offend the norms of the office will soften their enthusiasm. For example, he recently decided he would comment on Federal Reserve policy: a  line no modern president has crossed.  One model for the prediction is “dissonance theory.” You might assume that Donald Trump’s behavior is at odds with the supporter’s core values. Pointing that out ought to create mental stress and, therefore, the supporter’s reassessment. That’s one strategic equation.  Yet, the attitudes of supporters seem reasonably resilient.  Indeed, there is usually no “magic bullet” for producing change.  Those 30’s researchers were surprised by the non-uniform responses their received.  And it’s clear that attacks on the President frequently have the reverse of their intended effects.  His supporters have dug in.

The reasons we don’t get straight line effects are numerous, but mostly cluster around some version of what psychologists used to call “selective perception” and what communication people call “motivated reasoning.”  In both cases we look for alternative stories or accounts that can mitigate another’s assertion that we hold inconsistent views.  We find ways to dismiss the world we don’t want to see.

 What we are missing in this straight-line sequence is the  serendipity of individual initiative.       

In addition, blame our desire for simple cause and effect reasoning.  A common social science paradigm usually has us looking for first causes and subsequent effects.  Ostensibly, these chains offer a straight line of actions and subsequent behavioral results.  But what we are missing in this view is the serendipity of individual initiative: what sociologist Robert Merton partly meant by the familiar idea of “unintended consequences.”  It asks us to make generous allowances for human u-turns, wrong turns, delays, and alternate routes.  Indeed, some of us are world-class deniers.

When I entered into study of persuasion years ago I was certain that first causes could be identified with some reliability.  But years of study have moved me closer to a model that gives much wider latitude to the possibilities of disruption and denial.  This is a kind of ‘pattern of no patterns’ that seems built into the American character and is easily obscured in social science reporting that needs to show clear effects.

It is human nature to be unpredictable.  Sometimes even Uncle Fred may surprise us.

We Hear What We Need to Hear


This pattern of misperception is actually so common that if all of us drove cars about as poorly as we listen to others, our roadways would be strewn with wreckage.

We all have had the experience.  We are explaining a piece of our world to another, and the other person seems to be listening.  But their response indicates that they have mostly missed our point.  Instead of a reasonably accurate rendering of our thoughts, their comments reveal that they are projecting what they want to believe about us. For example, you may be talking about the challenges of your job, while a listener–for whatever reasons– may need to hear that you dislike your work. Or you tell them about your first visit to a novel new destination. And the most you can conclude from their response is that they need to hear that the site of the visit is overrated. At the end of such conversations we often walk away puzzled, perhaps concluding that the listener already had a mental map of us that they needed to confirm. This pattern of misperception is actually so common that if all of us drove cars as poorly as we listen to others, our roadways would be strewn with wreckage.

 To be sure, we can be unclear or ambiguous. “That’s not what I meant” ranks with “hello” as a well-worn locution. But sometimes the listener has seemingly willed their own preconceptions on to our rhetoric.  And it’s interesting to ponder why.

One explanation for this kind of selective perception is that conversation is mostly a process for seeking the familiar. This motive to retain what we already know is sometimes known as  “motivated reasoning” or “confirmation bias,” both representing the idea that we have the urge to place incoming information in a familiar map that we have already worked out.

Beyond the obvious economy of reverting to a well-traveled neural pathway, other reasons are possible:  Envy? Maybe the guilty comfort that comes with knowing that another person’s life is going less well than our own?  And there’s more.

We all construct fantasy themes about others that fill in the unknown gaps of their personal biographies.  In communication terms, fantasizing is not a mental health problem, but the natural result of the inductive reasoning we must do to create a more complete picture of another. Psychologists focused on social intelligence sometimes call this “theory of mind,” meaning that humans make estimates of others’ probable mental states based on the circumstantial evidence of prior experience. Add in the projection of the listener’s values onto the details of our life, and it’s easy to understand how we hear responses that can clearly puzzle us. As a general rule, any subject’s actions cannot help but be filtered through the receiver’s perceptions.

Put all of this together and we have an accumulating library of biographies with separate volumes for virtually every relative, friend, coworker and celebrity who is part of our cognitive world. As with any library, one of its rewards is the chance to revisit the familiar.

When things are off base enough you may be tempted to tell an interpreter of your own life that can you can’t recognize yourself from their descriptions.  Fair enough.  My guess is that we begin to offer a correctives to others by our fifth year.  It’s the birthright of every person to freely assert their uniqueness, and sometimes to remind interlocuteurs that they’ve missed the point. Such is the nature of rhetoric that persons who are ostensibly mirroring our ideas may really be saying more about  themselves.

Comments: woodward@tcnj.edu