The Vaccine Blog

Why reasoning isn`t always reasonable - Motivated Reasoning

1. What is Motivated Reasoning?

What was the most difficult decision you`ve ever had to make? Was it leaving a partner? Cutting someone else important out of your life? Changing careers? Did you have to decide whether or not to do a life changing medical procedure? Did you ever think that you were over emphasizing some facts and de-emphasizing others? Why?

Motivated reasoning (like confirmation bias) refers to when emotional biases make people justify decisions not aligned with evidence. In other words, the conclusion people want often directs their reasoning, not the other way around. It often happens whether people are aware of it or not. This allows people to (often unconsciously) reach the conclusions they want to draw. This is in contrast to deciding based on evidence actually in front of their eyes. We're all vulnerable to being biased, in many contexts. It's particularly obvious in people's views regarding political leaders and their actions. However, it's also been known to skew how people process scientific information about climate change, the recruitment process for jobs, and even while watching news programmes and weather forecasts. We're all biased. Think about any strong opinion you hold (everyone has at least one). There's probably some degree of bias driving that. In a purely logical world, an outcome based on rational reasoning would be accepted whether it was liked or not.

 We like to think of ourselves as rational beings. We`ve evolved out of the forests, we perform calculus and science, we can even share cat videos online! So why aren't we rational? What's the theme here? Well, it's the same as that that runs through many of the cognitive distortions I've discussed here. .Not just in the case of vaccine hesitancy, but in any conspiracy theory. It can be summarized in one word. Emotion. It could almost be said that (for extremists) "motivated reasoning" isn't really REASONING at all. The word “reasoning” suggests being REASONABLE. And basing decisions on emotional appeal rather than facts isn't a reasonable approach.

So, how does this relate to the anti vaccine movement, and vaccine hesitancy? Why is it worth discussing? The title of an article published on in 2021 captures the question we need to address if we want to understand the anti vaccine movement. “Unpacking parents' reasons for not vaccinating their children: why it matters”. The question we need to ask is WHY people cling so much to antiscience narratives? Even when it puts themselves in danger? When, tragically, it leads to the death of their children, as often happens. Motivated reasoning is one piece of the puzzle in answering this question. That's why it is so important to understand in the context of vaccine hesitancy and outright anti vaccine extremism. 

2. History of motivated reasoning

Motivated reasoning has a long history of being researched, with several particularly influential papers. The basic concept has actually been known for about 2,000 years. 

Like many mental models, motivated reasoning was first described by the Ancient Greeks. The Athenian historian and general Thucydides wrote about the enemies of Athens in the 5th century BC. He described their judgements as being based on “blind wishing than upon any sound prediction; for it is a habit of mankind to entrust to careless hope what they long for, and to use sovereign reason to thrust aside what they do not desire”. In the 4th century, the Greek philosopher and polymath Aristotle described akrasia, translated as incontinence or weakness of will. This, he said, occurred when the domination of reason by emotion leads to bad actions. Further, writing about Alexander the Great in the 1st century AD, the Greek historian, military commander, public servant and philosopher Arrian wrote that "Accordingly, as is usual in such cases, not knowing the facts, each man conjectured what was most pleasing to himself". 

There have also been a number of very influential papers on motivated reasoning. In his blog, the husband of the late Ziva Kunda writes that her 1990 paper  “The Case for Motivated Reasoning” has been cited more than 9,000 times according to Google Scholar, with more than 1,000 citations since 2001. The model she used is described as follows: 

"Motivation to arrive at  a desired conclusion provides a level of arousal, which acts as an initial trigger for the operation of cognitive processes. In order for someone to participate in motivated reasoning, either consciously or subconsciously, that individual first needs to be motivated. Motivation then affects reasoning by influencing the knowledge structures, (beliefs, memories, information) that are accessed and the cognitive processes used."

A study in 2000 by Milton Lodge and Charles Taber revealed that the emotional attachment we have to concepts determines what stored information we draw on when hearing new ideas. This triggers  a "how do I feel about this?" reflection. In other words, information processing comes after emotional labeling ie. I either feel good or bad about this. So what information do I need to confirm that? It follows the same pattern as many other cognitive biases. 

Are you seeing a theme here? Look at the phrasing-  “careless hope”- “the domination of reason by emotion leads to bad actions” -  “I either feel good or bad about this”   Emotion. How do I feel? Not “what's the logical conclusion, based on the evidence I have?” It seems we've always known that letting emotions control decisions rarely leads to positive outcomes. And that's perfectly OK in general. Everyday decisions, like when we decade we want to splurge on a takeaway or look at memes for hours.

It`s generally OK that we allow emotions to overwhelm us sometimes. It doesn`t make you weak, it just makes you human. That said, it becomes more complex when it comes to health decisions that can seriously affect people's lives. Even more so when it comes to vaccines, which impact the lives of almost everyone on the planet. In that context, it's critical to understand motivated reasoning in the context of vaccine hesitancy. So that's what I'm going to examine next.

3. Motivated reasoning and Vaccine Hesitancy

Humans are pattern-recognition machines. We use heuristics (mental shortcuts) to find patterns as quickly as possible. However, we have become so efficient at this, that at times we find patterns where there are none. Consider a mother whose child has just been diagnosed with autism. A very severe, disabling form of autism. Their child won't be able to work, find a life partner, and a third of autistic children are even nonverbal. I`ll ask you to imagine this scenario in your head. Many parents don't have to. This was the reality for the parents of Trevor, who his mother describes as being “on the lower end of the autism spectrum. His verbal communication is quite limited, he cannot tie his shoelaces and his main food staple is toast with butter, a side of cucumbers and maybe a slice of cheese on a good day”. She also states that Trevor attends a special needs school. Not every child is an autism success story. Approximately a third of autistic children are nonverbal, for instance. They can't communicate what they want. You hear of those with incredible talents ie. musical ability, math, calculating what day of the week any calendar day was, incredible memories etc. However, we rarely hear of more ordinary cases like Trevor's, who will likely struggle with what the rest of us see as milestones in life. His parents will likely be taking care of him for the majority of his life. 

So, now it's not so surprising that parents are in an emotionally primed state when they hear of vaccines being linked with autism. They need answers! If someone has hurt their child, they want the details. Even if it means slightly skewing their reasoning process. What does that mean? Evidence about vaccines will be selectively looked at and scrutinized until they are satisfied it supports what they want to believe (ie. In this case, those vaccines caused their child's autism). This allows attitudes about vaccines to be sustained over time, place, and regardless of what information is given to them. 

4. Identifying motivated reasoning in vaccine hesitancy

Therefore it should be clear that vaccine hesitancy has a psychological basis. This is what is key to keep in mind when trying to address it. Facts won't cut it because facts aren't what are really being evaluated here. Values are. What are their (scientists/medical institutions) values vs mine? Why do they have the right to impede on my freedom? Why do I have to get vaccinated for work? Why is there a need for nationwide vaccine mandates in schools?  When extremists criticize each other online, the criticisms are usually of institutions rather than vaccines themselves. So notice the social and political context in all these. The vaccines really just serve as a placeholder for the values that people believe scientific and medical authorities are impeding on. Freedom. When can the government regulate the health decisions of families? Why? Where is the line drawn between individual freedom and the collective good? Why?

Why do I have to vaccinate when herd immunity will protect me? Does this differ between people? If it was superficially about vaccines, the conversation would be much less emotionally charged. And this is why facts don't work. Through this (I believe more accurate) framework, let's re-evaluate how to approach patients who are strongly vaccine hesitant or anti vaccine extremists. This involves two main things. The first is identifying when we ourselves are engaging in motivated reasoning. Why? When we become aware of our own thought processes and biases, it's then very easy to identify them in others. From this, we can approach vaccine hesitant patients from a place of empathy and not prejudice. This, while not solving the issue, paves the way for open discussions and hopefully a better outcome. With that, let's look at how to identify motivated reasoning in ourselves and others. It won't be surprising to know that the features are very similar in both cases.  

5. How do we know we are biased?  

If you Google search "how to identify my biases", you'll be returned a list of articles with the top one being "How to Overcome Unconscious and Hidden Biases". Obviously these websites need an engaging title, but this is an oversimplification. You can't ever completely overcome biases. You CAN, however, become more aware of them. Which might make you pause next time before you make a snap judgment. 

5.1 - Emotional attachment

Let's jump in. I`m going to talk about perhaps the most important reason you might be biased first. Doing the most difficult things first is often the most productive strategy. So here we go: are you emotional when you're discussing your arguments? This is perhaps the most difficult one to think about and explore.  It is, however, quite possibly the most important one.  Have you had experiences that might make you emotional about the topic? Has your child/family member had an adverse reaction to a vaccine, or a bad experience with a healthcare institution? The reason I mention this is that emotion is the core theme running through every cognitive bias. It's difficult, but be honest. Talk to a mental health professional if you need to. It might help you resolve issues that are blocking clearer thinking. 

5.2- Biased Arguments

Here's another key thing. In the same way that you would analyze others' arguments, analyze your own. Do they tend a certain way? Could they be seen as polarized? Make sure you're in a neutral state of mind when you decide to do this seriously. Could there be evidence for the opposite position? Also try to factor in your own individual situation, and how and why others' positions might be different.

If you're REALLY motivated to find clarity on this,  write down your arguments. See them laid out. Divide them into strong,  moderate, and weak arguments. Have a friend read them. Have SEVERAL friends read them (depending on how much you trust them). Make them challenge you!  When an argument is strong, it will stand up against any and all scrutiny. The evidence will generally tend a certain way. 

5.3 - Unsupported claims

Are claims you are making actually supported by literature and facts? Research shows that provaccine accounts tend to share URLs linking to news sites and other more reliable sources, while strongly anti-vaccine accounts link to commercial sites for natural living products. This is interesting, seeing as one of the most common criticisms by vaccine hesitant and anti vaccine patients is that healthcare authorities (especially pharmaceutical companies) have commercial interests in selling vaccines. It's very important to analyze the sources you use. If you use news sites, are they reliable news sites? Why? Do they seem to be polarized, emotional and/or opinionated? This very same reasoning is important for scientific papers. Do they also seem polarized? Usually, polarized arguments suggest that there might be ulterior motives at play. Think about this. 

If you honestly put these into practice, you'll develop an intuition for where yours and    others arguments are weak. However, intuition isn't enough. It won't always stop you being biased. It's really important to put systems in place that will allow you to identify bias before you decide to accept the conclusions of an article, research paper, or indeed ANY piece of writing. So that's what I'm going to delve into next. Also, what's important to note is that you'll develop your own system for doing this. There's no one standard way that will work for everyone. We all process information differently depending on the biases we have. That's why it is so important to understand them and why you should read over my other articles (shameless self promotion alert!) to do this. That's actually part of the reason I started writing this in the first place. 

6. How can we mitigate motivated reasoning?

6.1 - Addressing Emotional Biases

Let's talk about perhaps the most difficult issue first. Do you have an emotional bias one way or another? It's good to understand it, but what can you actually do about it? The first two are very cliche and cheesy, but journaling and therapy CAN help to a degree. Working through issues and trauma we've experienced is really critical. It can help us in many or all aspects of our lives. Also, ask yourself what your triggers to getting defensive are. What did someone say to you that made you angry?  What was the situation? Was it about trauma, career, appearance, family? That might give you some insight into where biases are coming from

6.2 - Evaluate how reliable your arguments are

How do you stop yourself from searching for and choosing biased arguments? Well, you can`t totally. However, there are ways to reduce how biased the arguments you look for are. One I would suggest is to look at a variety of sources for the opposite argument. Don't just look at sources that are obviously ridiculous and allow you to discount it. Not every source has the same degree of polarization.  Go to a talk. Maybe someone will say one thing that might convince you. Not even convince, Make you more open maybe. 

6.3  - Make sure to not have biased sources

So, let's talk about the sources you use. They need to be analyzed for trustworthiness.  It doesn't matter how prestigious they are, or how much you enjoy them.  Do they have a good reputation for spreading accurate information? How do you know? Also another thing; don`t treat one source as gospel. Different factors come into play from time to time. There might be different writers with different degrees of biases about topics. Maybe a financial incentive came into play suddenly. Even scientific literature is not free from bias. It's important to check for any conflict of interest in papers you read. Even if you agree with the paper`s conclusions; in fact it's probably even more important if you agree with what the paper concludes.  

6.4- Final piece of advice

My final piece of advice to you in this post is perhaps more basic. However, they are areas people DO neglect. Are you hungry during discussions? Sleep deprived? Ill? Finally, the most important: Does it appeal to your common sense? It's easy to say that we should do these things, but most (myself included!) don`t always or rarely do them. 

7. Conclusions 

So, what's the key takeaway here? I`m going to summarize it in a single sentence. The key to understanding others is understanding yourself. Thanks for reading.


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What is Motivated Reasoning? - Simplicable - Waiting for response

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Motivated reasoning - Wikipedia

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