Nov 07 2014

Solution Aversion and Motivated Reasoning

Anyone paying the slightest attention has likely realized that people tend to hold positions in line with their general world view. In the US, for example, political conservatives tend to hold conservative opinions, while political liberals tend to hold liberal opinions. This is true even when the topic at hand is scientific or factual, and not a matter of value or opinion.

Whether the issue is climate change, GMO, gun control, nuclear power, the death penalty, or biological facts surrounding pregnancy and fetal development, your political ideology is likely to determine your scientific opinions.  Further, depending on how strongly held the political values are, facts are not very helpful in changing opinions. Presenting fact may actually backfire, motivating people to dig in their heels. 

All of this is old news to readers of the skeptical literature. The basic phenomenon at work here is motivated reasoning, which is a catchall covering the suite of biases and cognitive flaws that lead people to arrive at confident conclusions they wish to be true, rather than objectively following facts and logic wherever it leads. Further, as I discussed yesterday, the process of motivated reasoning leads us to a false confidence in our conclusions. We all think we have facts and logic on our side.

A recent paper on the issue defines motivated reasoning this way:

Of importance, recent evidence has demonstrated that political ideology, defined as “an interrelated set of moral and political attitudes that possesses cognitive, affective, and motivational components,” can similarly guide, funnel, and constrain the processing of information and alter behavior.

The paper reports the finding of four related psychological experiments to ask the further question – what, exactly, is driving the motivation?  The authors, Campbell and Kay from Duke University, tested their hypothesis that it is the proposed solutions that are, at least partly, motivating denial of the science, rather than aversion to the science itself.

They first replicated prior studies showing a difference in attitude toward climate change:

On the dichotomous agreement measure, Republicans were less likely to agree with the climate change science than were Democrats; respectively, 60% agreement and 80.85% agreement. On the continuous likelihood measure of human causation, Republicans were less likely to indicate humankind was causing global climate change than were Democrats; respectively, M  4.83, SD  1.19 and M  6.49, SD  1.54. Also as predicted, Republicans reported that the solutions to climate change would have a more negative effect on the economy than did Democrats; respectively, M  0.42, SD  1.83 and M  0.55, SD  1.80. Republicans also reported stronger endorsement of free market ideology than did Democrats; respectively, M  82.24, SD  18.48 and M  58.59, SD  25.95.

Analysing this data further they found a correlation between belief that proposed solutions to climate change would have a negative impact on the economy, and skepticism regarding climate change.  They found:

Self-identified Republicans reported significantly higher rates of agreement with the climate change science when the policy solution was free market friendly (55%) than when the policy was governmental regulation (22%).

They repeated the experiment with the scientific question being the likelihood of developing health problems due to environmental pollution. They found an interaction between the strength of free market ideology and a greater acceptance of the science when paired with free-market friendly solutions rather than big government solutions.

Finally they repeated the experiment again, with some tweaks, but this time for gun control, mainly to see if the effect existed for those with a more liberal ideology:

Self-identified gun control supporters reported a significantly higher severity of the intruder violence problem when the policy solution was gun control friendly (M  .21, SD  .77) than when the solution was anti-gun control (M.55, SD  .80). Self-identified gun rights supporters, however, reported directionally lower severity of the intruder violence problem when the policy solution was gun control friendly (M  .07, SD  .82) than when it was anti-gun control.


The authors conclude that solution aversion is a significant component of motivated reasoning – people reject climate science in part because the proposed solutions to climate change challenge their political ideology. In the discussion they put this effect into the context of existing theories on motivated reasoning.

They discuss system justification theory, which:

“…is the tendency for people to justify, maintain, and otherwise bolster the validity of their current social system, often through motivated and fact-defying processes.”

They also discuss cognitive coherence, which is the tendency to hold views that support each other (the opposite of cognitive dissonance).

Therefore, if the proposed solution to an apparent problem challenges one’s ideology system, they will be motivated to deny the problem itself in order to reject the solution. Accepting the problem but rejecting the solution violates cognitive coherence, and people will tend to avoid this situation:

Instead, people usually find ways to shape their factual beliefs so that these are largely consistent with their moral beliefs, thus minimizing any psychological dilemma.

The combination, therefore, of solution aversion, system justification, and cognitive coherence motivates people to reject scientific conclusions which would present to them a psychological dilemma by suggesting a solution that is inconsistent with their ideology.  The cognitive pathway of least resistance is to simply deny the science. If the problem does not exist, the dilemma vanishes.

The findings of these studies is in line with my personal experience. When discussing climate change with those who reject the science, the unacceptability of proposed solutions features prominently in their arguments. For example, here is an e-mail from one person skeptical of climate change:

There are three interrelated propositions associated with climate change:

1 – The earth is warming
2 – This warming is due to CO2
3 – This warming is an imminent threat to the earth and must be countered in some way (i.e. Public policy proposals).

The vast majority of climate change skeptics agree with #1, quibble with #2, and disagree with #3 because any action would be either ineffective or detrimental (or have unintended consequences which would be worse).

Sometimes the aversion to the proposed solutions is raised to the point of being a conspiracy theory – that the science of climate change is a deliberate hoax manufactured for the specific purpose of creating a justification for the proposed solutions, in this case government takeover of the energy industry. We see this type of argument frequently in conspiracy theories. The reaction to 9/11 was to invade Iraq, therefore 9/11 was a hoax perpetrated for the specific purpose of justifying the invasion of Iraq.

Perhaps the most important lesson for skeptics, in my opinion, is that we must consciously strive to be comfortable accepting different beliefs that seem to be in conflict. The scientific facts do not have to always support our moral or political opinions. The real world serves up dilemmas all the time, we need to deal with them rather than use motivated reasoning to wish them away.

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