Cognitive biases are patterns of thinking that deviate systematically from evidence-based reasoning. Scientists have uncovered nearly 200 cognitive biases experimentally, though many might be closely related to each other. In the workplace, in any activity that requires careful judgment based on reliable situational assessment, cognitive biases create significant risk of compromising either decision quality, or communication reliability, or both.
The risk of poor decisions or unreliable communications is elevated when the time scale of the decision process is short, as in high-stakes discussions, heated debate, and emergencies. Methods for mitigating that risk are therefore valuable. But how can we possibly protect ourselves against the effects of 200 cognitive biases?
On a one-by-one basis — cognitive bias by cognitive bias — risk mitigation is difficult. There are too many cognitive biases. But we can become familiar with patterns of working and thinking that increase our vulnerability to cognitive biases. When we notice the indicators of these patterns, we can be alert to the risk of cognitive biases. Motivated reasoning [Kunda 1990] [Molden 2005] is one of those patterns.
Motivated reasoning, also known as motivated thinking, is a pattern of thinking that we use to reach conclusions we prefer by means of what appears to be evidence-based reasoning, but which might actually be nothing of the kind. We also use motivated reasoning to avoid reaching or to defer reaching conclusions that we'd rather not reach. Consider this example:
Suppose you have an outdoor activity to do tomorrow. And you really can't do it in rainy conditions. As you're making plans for tomorrow, how often do you check tomorrow's weather forecast during the afternoon today and during the evening?
Research shows that in such a scenario, people who regard the activity as desirable will, on average, check the forecast more often if the forecast is unfavorable. And people who regard the activity as undesirable will, on average, check the forecast more often if the forecast is favorable. In other words, data gathering is less intensive when the data indicates a favored result, and more intensive when the data indicates a disfavored result.
In this example, the existence of a preference affects the decision process. The preference provides a motivation that biases the decision, even though the actions undertaken seem consistent with unbiased, evidence-based reasoning.
In the workplace, motivated reasoning masquerades as reasonableness and probity. In that disguise motivated reasoning enables us to fool ourselves into believing that we're thinking and reasoning objectively when we are not. [Noval 2019] [Boiney 1997] Motivated reasoning is effective — counter-effective, actually — because it facilitates departure from evidence-based reasoning in two important ways.
- Deceiving discourse participants
- Because motivated reasoning is so superficially similar to evidence-based reasoning, it can conceal the effects of cognitive biases. Subjected to motivated reasoning, people come to believe that they're following an evidence-based argument. This leads them to the impression that they're engaged in critical thinking when they are not. Motivated reasoning suppresses our sensitivity to sources of bias in our decision processes.
- Consuming resources
- Any discourse Any discourse requires the time
and the energy of the participants.
The specious arguments of motivated
reasoning consume both.requires two resources: the time of the participants, and the energy of the participants. The specious arguments of motivated reasoning consume both of these resources. For example, most meetings have defined duration. Time is limited for the meeting and for its agenda items. Participant energy is also limited. Participants who want to attend to an evidence-based argument must share the time and energy resources with those who put forth arguments based on motivated reasoning. And when they do have the floor, they must spend some of their time dealing with the effects and distractions of motivated reasoning. Thus motivated reasoning both establishes specious conclusions and obstructs the establishment of more legitimate conclusions. Meetings can be extended, and deadlines relaxed, up to a point. But time lost to motivated reasoning is lost nevertheless.
All this would be enough to qualify motivated reasoning as one of the more destructive cognitive processes, but there is more. The most devious among us use motivated reasoning to deal with others who might be or might become clear-thinking opponents who might refute deceptive arguments. Using motivated reasoning, these devious individuals convert others into unwitting accomplices who then help to propagate deception.
In the context of motivated reasoning, some cognitive biases are more likely to arise than others. These biases include Attribute Substitution, Hindsight Bias, Confirmation Bias, Self-serving Bias, and the Pseudocertainty Effect. In the next post of this series, I'll discuss how Motivated Reasoning can increase our vulnerability to the Pseudocertainty Effect. First in this series Next in this series Top Next Issue
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More articles on Cognitive Biases at Work:
- Cognitive Biases and Influence: I
- The techniques of influence include inadvertent — and not-so-inadvertent — uses of cognitive
biases. They are one way we lead each other to accept or decide things that rationality cannot support.
- Bullet Point Madness: I
- Decision makers in modern organizations commonly demand briefings in the form of bullet points or a
series of series of bullet points. But this form of presentation has limited value for complex decisions.
We need something more. We actually need to think.
- Seven More Planning Pitfalls: II
- Planning teams, like all teams, are susceptible to several patterns of interaction that can lead to
counter-productive results. Three of these most relevant to planners are False Consensus, Groupthink,
and Shared Information Bias.
- Be Choosier About Job Offers: I
- A serious error some job seekers make is accepting an offer that isn't actually a good fit. We make
this mistake for a variety of reasons, including hating the job-search process, desperation, and wishful
thinking. How can we avoid the error?
- Mental Accounting and Technical Debt
- In many organizations, technical debt has resisted efforts to control it. We've made important technical
advances, but full control might require applying some results of the behavioral economics community,
including a concept they call mental accounting.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming November 30: Avoiding Speed Bumps: II
- Many of the difficulties we encounter when working together don't create long-term harm, but they do cause delays, confusion, and frustration. Here's Part II of a little catalog of tactics for avoiding speed bumps. Available here and by RSS on November 30.
- And on December 7: Reaching Agreements in Technological Contexts
- Reaching consensus in technological contexts presents special challenges. Problems can arise from interactions between the technological elements of the issue at hand, and the social dynamics of the group addressing that issue. Here are three examples. Available here and by RSS on December 7.
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