"Our data shows substantial support for a cognitive theory known as 'motivated reasoning,' which suggests that rather than search rationally for information that either confirms or disconfirms a particular belief, people actually seek out information that
confirms what they already believe."
Co-author "There Must Be a Reason: Osama, Saddam and Inferred Justification"
Steven Hoffman, Ph.D., visiting assistant professor of sociology at the University at Buffalo
The study, calls such unsubstantiated beliefs "a serious challenge to democratic theory and practice" and considers how and why it was maintained by so many voters for so long in the absence of supporting evidence. Hoffman claims, "The study demonstrates voters' ability to develop elaborate rationalizations based on faulty information.
"In fact, for the most part, people
completely ignore contrary information."
While numerous scholars have blamed a campaign of false information and innuendo from the Bush administration, this study argues that the primary cause of misperception in the 9/11-Saddam Hussein case was not the presence or absence of accurate data but a respondent's desire to believe in particular kinds of information.
(Monica Prasad, Andrew J. Perrin, Kieran Bezila, Steve G. Hoffman, Kate Kindleberger, Kim Manturuk, and Ashleigh Smith Powers; "There Must Be a Reason: Osama, Saddam, and Inferred Justification"; Sociological Inquiry; March 13 2009)
Hoffman continues,"We form emotional attachments that get wrapped up in our personal identity and sense of morality, irrespective of the facts of the matter. The problem is that this notion of 'motivated reasoning' has only been supported with experimental results in artificial settings. We decided it was time to see if it held up when you talk to actual voters in their homes, workplaces, restaurants, offices and other deliberative settings."
The study team employed a technique called "challenge interviews" on a sample of voters who reported believing in a link between Saddam and 9/11. The researchers presented the available evidence of the link, along with the evidence that there was no link, and then pushed respondents to justify their opinion on the matter. For all but one respondent, the overwhelming evidence that there was no link left no impact on their arguments in support of the link.
One unexpected pattern that emerged from the different justifications that subjects offered for continuing to believe in the validity of the link was that it helped citizens make sense of the Bush Administration's decision to go to war against Iraq
"We refer to this as 'inferred justification,'" says Hoffman,
"because for these voters, the sheer fact
that we were engaged in war led to a post-hoc search
for a justification for that war."
"People were basically making up justifications for the fact that we were at war," he says.
"One of the things that is really interesting about this, from both the perspective of voting patterns but also for democratic theory more generally, Hoffman says, "is that we did not find that people were being duped by a campaign of innuendo so much as they were actively constructing links and justifications that did not exist."
Voting and Decision Making
(a) The Negative Role of Emotion
Who is making an honest effort to "connect the dots" and find truth before they justify their positions and vote for a political candidate? Very few take the time and effort to do so. Dissecting an issue requires a deep investigation of both sides. Those who refuse to consider the opposition ignore one of the imperatives of argumentation -- that is, they do not consider concession where required.
Beyond that, if people cannot logically refute the pros of an opposing stance, they are required to change their position, and, indeed, change their minds. Emotion prevents so many voters from doing so.
Rational thinking and decision-making does not leave much room for emotions. In fact, reaching an informed decision will only be impeded and confused by the impact of emotions.
Speaking of emotional decisions, did you ever wonder why so many people have an obsession to gamble? Their brains actually “buy into” the proposition of a gamble when it is framed in certain ways.
Studies have shown that how a question is posed — think negative ads in a political campaign, for instance — skews decision-making. But no one showed exactly how this effect worked in the human brain until the brain-imaging study led by Benedetto De Martino of University College London.
(Benedetto De Marino, “Frames, Biases, and Rational Decision-Making in the Human Brain, Science 4, August 2006)
De Martino and colleagues asked 20 men and women to undergo three 17-minute brain scans while being asked to gamble — or not — with an initial pot of English pounds worth about $95. When told they would "keep" 40% of their money if they didn't gamble, the volunteers chose to gamble only 43% of the time. Told they could "lose" 60% of the money if they didn't gamble, they rolled the dice 62% of the time.
Their chances of winning the money were carefully explained beforehand, and participants knew the odds were identical. But the framing effect still skewed their decisions significantly.
The brain images revealed the amygdala, a neural region that processes strong negative emotions such as fear, fired up vigorously in response to each two-second (on average) gambling decision. Where people resisted the framing effect, a brain region connected to positive emotions such as empathy, and another that activates whenever people face choices, lit up as well, seeming to duke it out over the decision.
"We found everyone showed emotional biases, more or less; no one was totally free of them," De Martino says. Even among the four participants who were aware they were inconsistent in decision-making, "they said, 'I know, I just couldn't help myself,' " he says.
The study comes amid a burst of research into neuroeconomics, which studies the brain's role in buying and selling decisions.
Economists have embraced the idea in recent years that irrational psychology, rather than cool calculation, plays a role in such decisions.
The brain study goes further and suggests that emotions rule decisions almost completely.
(b) Inability to Judge the Competence of Others
Now, I believe we all suffer from some degree of blindness from our own personal lack of expertise. We all have gaps in our knowledge in given areas, and we need to strengthen our understanding and fill in those gaps with good, reliable information. How many people are capable of doing this with precision? Is it any wonder a growing body of research has revealed that democratic elections produce mediocre leadership and policies?
As a result, no amount of information or facts about political candidates can override the inherent inability of many voters to accurately evaluate them. On top of that, "very smart ideas are going to be hard for people to adopt, because most people don’t have the sophistication to recognize how good an idea is," says Dunning.
Kruger and Dunning proposed that, for a given skill, incompetent people will:
- tend to overestimate their own level of skill;
- fail to recognize genuine skill in others;
- fail to recognize the extremity of their inadequacy;
Particularly, when the stakes are high, we must better educate ourselves about political candidates, including local, state, and national leaders. Even though many of us have little interest in politics, the decisions our elected officials make greatly affect our lives. We have to be able to identify the skills required to perform their job whether they run for dog catcher or governor, and we have to become more adept at recognizing those skills in those whom we elect to office.