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Readers and “Motivated Reasoning”

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Posted March 15, 2019

Today’s readers are more skeptical than ever of the information they consume. An increase in disinformation and so-called fake news had led to “the rise of skeptical reading,” as the Nieman Journalism Lab puts it. But it gets even worse: some readers aren’t just skeptical, they’re actively hostile to the information they’re consuming.

Scientists and science writers seem to run into these issues with particular frequency, but it can affect businesses too. If consumers lose trust in brands or hold strong feelings about an industry or organization, that will affect how they consume relevant information. Sometimes readers simply want to believe what they want to believe, no matter how accurate the information, how rigorous the research, or how clear the evidence.

This is called “motivated reasoning.” It’s related to confirmation bias; it means when readers consume information, they apply an agenda-driven filter to it. The issue is that emotion cannot be strictly separated from reasoning; as a result, “when we think we’re reasoning, we may instead be rationalizing,” writes science journalist Chris Mooney. Or, as New York University psychologist Jonathan Haidt says, “We may think we’re being scientists, but we’re actually being lawyers.”

This can make subject matter where motivated reasoning might arise surprisingly difficult to discuss in writing, because the author must contend with the reader’s personal interest and motivation to believe or disbelieve certain facts. Thankfully, research provides a few clues how to handle motivated reasoning in readers.

For example, one research experiment looked at how readers consumed research about the effectiveness of the death penalty to deter murder. Researchers divided participants into two groups. One group, receiving motivational instructions, were told to be as objective and unbiased as possible when assimilating evidence. The other group received cognition-focused instructions. They were told to “ask yourself at each step whether you would have made the same high or low evaluations had exactly the same study produced results on the other side of the issue.” In other words, if told the research came to one conclusion, they were asked to consider what they would have thought if the results had been the opposite. That “consider the opposite” strategy proved much more effective than the “objectivity” strategy at overcoming bias in consuming research related to the death penalty.

In another study about motivated reasoning, researchers examined how to package newspaper articles about global warming to bypass bias filters and motivated reasoning. It came down to how information was presented. When researchers presented the headline “Scientific Panel Recommends Anti-Pollution Solution to Global Warming,” many study participants resisted the message. When the same article was re-framed as “Scientific Panel Recommends Nuclear Solution to Global Warming,” participants were much more open to considering that humans are causing global warming.

If your team is writing about subjects that the audience may react to with motivated reasoning, writers should think carefully about how they frame their arguments. If the same points can be expressed in a way that appeals to the reader’s self-interest and worldview or can find a way to get readers to challenge their own thinking (“consider the opposite”), it becomes easier to bypass their motivated reasoning.

Readers and “Motivated Reasoning”

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(503 Reviews)