Motivated Reasoning

… a core concept in Socioeconomic and Political Context and Atlas105.

Concept description

Writing in Oxford Bibliographies, Thomas Leeper and Kevin Mullinix (2018, reference below) describe the motivated reasoning as “the seemingly limitless power of partisanship and prior beliefs to color and distort perceptions of the political and social world.”

They state that:

“Motivated reasoning has become a central theoretical concept in academic discourse across the fields of psychology, political science, and mass communication. … Since its emergence in the psychological literature in the mid- to late-20th century, motivated reasoning theory has been continuously elaborated but also challenged by researchers working across academic fields. In broad terms, motivated reasoning theory suggests that reasoning processes (information selection and evaluation, memory encoding, attitude formation, judgment, and decision-making) are influenced by motivations or goals. Motivations are desired end-states that individuals want to achieve. The number of these goals that have been theorized is numerous, but political scientists have focused principally on two broad categories of motivations: accuracy motivations (the desire to be “right” or “correct”) and directional or defensive motivations (the desire to protect or bolster a predetermined attitude or identity). While much research documents the effects of motivations for attitudes, beliefs, and knowledge, a growing literature highlights individual-level variables and contexts that moderate motivated reasoning.

Psychology Today’s article on What is Motivated Reasoning? says:

“Human beings are not always – in fact,  probably not often – the objective, rational creatures they like to think they are. In the past few decades, psychologists have demonstrated the many ways people deceive themselves every step of the way through the process of reasoning. Indeed, cognitive faculties are a distinguishing feature of humanity – lifting humankind out of caves and enabling the arts and sciences – nevertheless, they are also rooted in and subject to influence, or bias, by emotions and deeply ingrained instincts. One of the most significant ways information processing and decision-making becomes warped is through motivated reasoning, the bias toward a decision that conforms to what a person already knows, and it occurs outside of awareness that anything sneaky is going on.

“Cognitive scientists see motivated reasoning as a force that operates in many domains. Studies by political psychologists highlight denial of global warming or discrediting its science as important examples of motivated reasoning; people process scientific information about climate shifts to conform to pre-existing feelings and beliefs. After all, accepting that climate change is real portends unpleasant environmental consequences and would require most people to head them off by making significant changes in lifestyle. Changing one’s mind and changing one’s lifestyle are hard work; people prefer mental shortcuts – in this case, having the goal fit their ready-made conclusions.”

Motivated reasoning leads to Confirmation Bias and can be thought of as a strategy to deal with Cognitive Dissonance.

Atlas topic, subject, and course

The Study of the Socioeconomic Context for Politics and Policy (core topic) in Socioeconomic and Political Context and Atlas105.


Thomas J. Leeper and Kevin J. Mullinix (2018), Motivated Reasoning, Oxford Bibliographies, at, accessed 5 December 2018.

Psychology Today, Motivated Reasoning, at, accessed 5 December 2018.

Page created by: Ian Clark, last modified on 5 December 2018.

Image: Mario Sikora, Motivated Reasoning, at, accessed 5 December 2018.