What Is Motivated Reasoning? Steven Pinker Explains

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Rationality" by Steven Pinker. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is motivated reasoning? Why is it important to be able to recognize it in yourself and others?

Humans, despite our intelligence and ingenuity, often behave irrationally. Steven Pinker explains that people frequently fall victim to cognitive blunders that lead them down an irrational path. One of these blunders is motivated reasoning.

Continue reading Pinker’s advice on how you can overcome this tendency and think more rationally about your choices.

Motivated Reasoning 

Pinker writes that rationality, by itself, is unmotivated. That is, a rational line of thought doesn’t desire to end in a certain place but instead follows its logic to wherever its premises and conclusions lead it. However, sometimes a rational line of thought points to an end that the thinker doesn’t desire, like when it’s clear that the fair thing to do in a situation requires the reasoner to do something unpleasant. When this happens, a person might fall back on motivated reasoning.

So, what is motivated reasoning? Pinker explains that it’s the use of faulty logic to arrive at a desired conclusion. We see people engaging in motivated reasoning when, for example, they justify purchasing an extravagant car by saying they like its fuel efficiency. In such a case, their true motivation is that they simply want the car, and they find a reason to justify that desire. We also see motivated reasoning when people choose to ignore certain facts that don’t support their worldview—like when a favored politician does something wrong. And, it’s behind many conspiracy theories, such as when someone who doesn’t want to believe in climate change dismisses scientific data as manipulated despite a lack of evidence to that effect.

Pinker says that people engage in motivated reasoning so frequently that it suggests that our instinct to try to win arguments developed in tandem with our ability to reason. We’ve evolved not only to think logically but equally, to convince others of our logic, even when flawed. According to this theory, the evolutionary advantage of this instinct is that it leads to stronger collective conclusions—people are eager to pass off weak arguments of their own but are quick to point out flaws in the arguments of others, and in doing so, the group as a whole ends up at the right answer. He points to studies that show small groups are better able to arrive at a correct answer than individuals are—as long as one group member can spot the right argument, the others are quickly convinced.

(Shortform note: Some psychologists take Pinker’s theory even further, suggesting that arguments—attempts to convince others of your point of view, even when flawed—aren’t just a byproduct of reason; they are, in fact, the purpose of reason itself. In this view, reason didn’t evolve as a way to make better decisions but instead, to allow people to evaluate the arguments of others. This allowed for communication to be reliable, which in turn, made possible the development of human societies. This theory suggests, then, that when people bandy around some of the irrational ideas Pinker refers to, such as support for flawed politicians and conspiracy theories, eventually, more rational takes will win out.)

What Is Motivated Reasoning? Steven Pinker Explains

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  • Why rationality and reason are essential for improving our world and society
  • How you can be more rational and make better decisions
  • How to avoid the logical fallacies people often fall victim to

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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