On Motivated Reasoning, or Why People Complain About Stupid On the Internet Are Missing The True Threat.
I’ve been exploring a really interestingly varied blogroll these days, as my previous entries might have mentioned. I’m continuing that trend, and I find it surprisingly peaceful. It’s been kind of driving home to me how uncannily similar the voices of extremists, even (in fact, especially) extremists who hate each other and blame each other for everything, end up being.
Why? Because the world, as I have said, is complicated. Most of the topics which drive genuine controversy do so because there are large groups of people who believe things, and most people don’t believe things that are directly contradicted by their day-to-day experiences. And while quite a lot of people misrepresent the import of their day-to-day experiences (assuming that because they don’t suffer from a given ill that obviously no one does, and the people who mention it are just whiners), those experiences are still data. They are happening in the world, and you need to take them into account.
And that’s where we get into motivated reasoning. Extremists, especially extremists dealing on topics with a modicum of nuance, do not want to wrap up their narratives in codicils and addendums. They do not want to say “While on first glance this looks like a shining example of the tyranny Our Group suffers under the hateful oppression of Their Group, if you look at historical trends, this seems to be an isolated incident rather than an worrying trend-indicator, so we should recognize that it happened while keeping an eye on the big picture.” And they do want to say that when it’s an example of Our Group being bad to Their Group, because of said narrative.
So, people find reasons to believe what they want to believe is true. They juggle statistics and studies. They make a few tiny leaps of logic in reporting what those studies say. They resort to emotive metaphors or leaps of rhetoric. Hell, sometimes it just comes down to reporting on one type of incident, and keeping silent on the other type.
People complain about the amount of dumb on the Internet, and there certainly is no shortage of that, either. But you can recognize dumb when you see it. It’s a lot harder to recognize true or mostly-true statements which bias you not from what they say, but from the fact that their speaker chose to say them and not others, on some topics but not others. Dumb is not contagious, or persuasive, or seductive. But motivated reasoning is.
So again, I really recommend putting a few erudite, well-read people who believe violently opposing things (at least some of which you think are terrible) on your blog roll. Because reading the terrible stuff and going “Leap of logic, leap of logic, misreport of study, use of emotive appeal…” builds habits, which make you a whole lot less susceptible to those same tactics when they’re being used to say obviously true things which you obviously agree with.