Taking Sides, Facts Be Damned: On the importance of relational quality for cognitive clarity (by John Adams)

Picture Source: Gauld, Tom. 2017. Baking with Kafka. Canongate Books Limited

(This blog post is adapted from a presentation given at the May 2018 Economics for the Ecozoic symposium and the July 2018 CANSEE Grad Student Research Symposium.)

Upton Sinclair, the famous “muckraker” of the gilded age, used to say, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” And yet a salary is not unique in this respect. We regularly rationalize, justify, and otherwise employ our cognitive faculties toward all manner of goals other than objective accuracy. This is often called “motivated reasoning”. I focus here on ideologically motivated reasoning (IMR), taking as a prime example the role of free-market ideology in climate change denial in the US. Ideology provides an especially potent example of what can garner our allegiance and warp our cognition, because when we become invested in it, we easily become identified with it. Importantly, this happens in a social context: all too often, shared ideology is our ticket to community, to belonging, which for a human animal is closely tied to survival.

Before reviewing some key findings from the IMR literature, it is helpful to get some perspective from social and clinical neuroscience on the importance of belonging. Trauma expert Bessel van der Kolk writes, in his book The Body Keeps the Score, “Our culture teaches us to focus on personal uniqueness, but at a deeper level we barely exist as individual organisms. Our brains are built to help us function as members of a tribe” (p.80). He goes on to state, “Being able to feel safe with other people is probably the single most important aspect of mental health” (p.80). Social neuroscientist John Cacioppo calls humans “obligatorily gregarious”. In his 2008 book, Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection, he compiles decades of research findings on the effects of what we might call ‘deficiency in relational quality’. For instance, the more isolated, rejected, or socially insecure we feel, the more we exhibit a wide range of deleterious effects, including decreased empathy, increased orientation to threat, and heightened tendency to conform. (It’s also worse for your physical health than obesity!)

Cacioppo and van der Kolk are in agreement that what matters is not quantity (how many connections or interactions one has), but quality: “The critical issue is reciprocity: being truly heard and seen by the people around us” (van der Kolk 2014, p.81). Taking into account the US trends of decline in close friendships (McPherson et al. 2006; the modal response dropped from three in 1985 to zero in 2004) and in participation in community life (Putnam 2000), we get a sense of the general state of belonging. Looking ahead to how this applies to IMR, we can expect that when one’s main access to belonging is granted through orthodoxy (believing the right thing), and when heresy may lead to excommunication, threats to the ideology will be fended off as if they were threats to the self, and out-groups will be cast as enemies.

Indeed, much of loyalty to ideology can be understood as serving to express and protect membership in one’s cultural group (Kahan 2013). Contrary to the notion that those who reject climate science must simply be a bit daft, or ignorant, or closed-minded, it appears that the less of these qualities one has, the more effectively one can utilize their mental faculties toward desired conclusions (Kahan et al. 2012). (Remember, accuracy is not necessarily the goal!) One key finding is that free-market ideologies are closely associated with “rejection of scientific findings that have potential regulatory implications” (Lewandowsky et al. 2015). By experimentally associating either government regulation or free-market friendly solutions with science around environmental problems, Campbell & Kay (2014) found free market ideologues much more amenable to the science in the latter case (Fig. 1), finding not skepticism, but “solution aversion” to be the real factor at play.

Figure 1. “Solution Aversion” – When the solutions tied to environmental problems are free-market friendly, free market ideologues are much more likely to accept the science expressing the problem. From Campbell & Kay 2014.

According to Munda (1990), bias away from accuracy is constrained by people’s “ability to construct seemingly reasonable justifications”—i.e., by what one can get away with. Above, it was noted that the “smarter” one is (e.g., the higher one scores on a test of critical reasoning), the easier it is to generate “seemingly reasonable justifications”. However, when evaluating reasons rather than generating them, it appears to be more difficult to deny sound reasoning when it is presented (Ballarini & Sloman 2017). This fits with the findings of Ranney & Clark (2016) that, though specific knowledge of the physico-chemical mechanism of climate change is rare in the public, learning it can increase acceptance of the science. Unfortunately, the ongoing and heavily-funded injection of pseudo-legitimate doubt and ideological rhetoric into the public sphere (Oreskes & Conway 2009, Brulle 2013) acts as a concerted effort to unconstrain motivational bias and warp topics into wedge issues that polarize and politicize along party lines. This polarization additionally enhances bias, since, as mentioned, IMR is seen as functioning not only to protect underlying values with which one is identified (e.g., free-market idealism), but to communicate membership in one’s “tribe”.  (And, yes, you’re not just imagining it: politics has become increasingly polarized over the last 70 years [Andris et al. 2015].)

In charting a course out of the tribal tangle of IMR, efforts to constrain bias will be important. With regard to climate change, rather than constant reference to scientific consensus, making the basic mechanism known may make it harder to deny. We should call out the unconstraining tactics of the “merchants of doubt” (Oreskes & Conway 2009). Additionally, since free market idealism is a culprit in the rejection of the science, we should address the values (e.g., freedom) and fears (e.g., fascism) underlying that ideology. Scenario Planning (Peterson et al. 2003) could be used to elicit shared positive future visions, such that means become secondary to the common goal, which can then serve as a basis for a sense of being “on the same side”. None of this is likely to go very far, though, if we are still operating according to argument culture (Tannen 1998); if we are casting each other as enemies and trying to conquer and convert each other. Training in dialogue—not just learning about it, but actual practice in connecting and collaborating beyond the old tribal warfare pattern—will in turn be much supported by structures, contexts, and practices that nurture bonds of community and senses of self that are not dependent on ideology.

How do we do that? It is firmly on my research agenda to investigate and articulate what structures and practices can best reground us out of abstraction, to reconnect us to ourselves and each other. There is a lot to say on the subject. Suffice it for now to say that much of what we can do as individuals starts with attentional practice, to build our capacity to be present rather than swept up in reactive patterns of mind and emotion (i.e., meditation). In support of that, I leave you with a book recommendation: Everything is Workable: A Zen Approach to Conflict Resolution, by Diane Musho Hamilton (2013), is a great place to start.


Andris, C., Lee, D., Hamilton, M. J., Martino, M., Gunning, C. E., & Selden, J. A. (2015). The rise of partisanship and super-cooperators in the U.S. House of Representatives. PLoS ONE, 10(4). http://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0123507 (Video graphic at https://youtu.be/tEczkhfLwqM)

Brulle, R. J. (2013). Institutionalizing delay: foundation funding and the creation of U.S. climate change counter-movement organizations. Climatic Change, 122(4), 681–694. http://doi.org/10.1007/s10584-013-1018-7

Ballarini, C., & Sloman, S. A. (2017). Reasons and the “Motivated Numeracy Effect.” Proceedings of the 39th Annual Meetiing of the Cognitive Science Society, 1580–1585.

Cacioppo, J. (2008). Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection. 2nd ed. New York, NY: Norton.

Campbell, T. H., & Kay, A. C. (2014). Solution aversion: On the relation between ideology and motivated disbelief. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 107(5), 809–824. http://doi.org/10.1037/a0037963

Hamilton, D.M. (2013).  Everything is Workable: A Zen Approach to Conflict Resolution. Boston, MA: Shambhala.

Kahan, D. M., Peters, E., Wittlin, M., Slovic, P., Ouellette, L. L., Braman, D., & Mandel, G. (2012). The Polarizing Impact of Science Literacy and Numeracy on Perceived Climate Change Risks. Nature Climate Change, 2(10), 732–735. http://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate1547

Kahan, D. M. (2013). Ideology, Motivated Reasoning, and Cognitive Reflection. Judgment & Decision Making, 8(4), 407–424. http://doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2182588

Kahan, D. M. (2017). The expressive rationality of inaccurate perceptions. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 40. http://doi.org/10.1017/S0140525X15002332

van der Kolk, B. (2014). The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. New York, NY: Viking Penguin.

Kunda, Z. (1990). The case for motivated reasoning. Psychological Bulletin, 108(3), 480–498. http://doi.org/10.1037/0033-2909.108.3.480

Lewandowsky S., Gignac G. E., Oberauer K. (2015). The Role of Conspiracist Ideation and Worldviews in Predicting Rejection of Science. PLOS ONE 10(8): e0134773. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0134773

McPherson, M., Smith-lovin, L., & Brashears, M. E. (2006). Social Isolation in America: Changes in Core Discussion Networks over Two Decades, 71, 353–375.

Oreskes, N., & E. Conway (2010). Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming. New York, NY: Bloomsbury Publishing.

Peterson, G.D., Cumming, G.S., & Carpenter, S.R. (2013). Scenario Planning: a Tool for Conservation in an Uncertain World. Conservation Biology, 17(2), 358-366.

Putnam, R.B. (2000). Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

Ranney, M. A., & Clark, D. (2016). Climate Change Conceptual Change: Scientific Information Can Transform Attitudes. Topics in Cognitive Science, 8(1), 49–75. http://doi.org/10.1111/tops.12187

Tannen, D. (1998). The Argument Culture: Moving from Debate to Dialogue. Random House.

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