Oliver Burke­man

Plus My life in sex

The Guardian - Weekend - - Contents -

One of the most ob­vi­ous truths about the mod­ern world is that a whole lot of peo­ple be­lieve a whole lot of non­sense – about cli­mate change not be­ing real, Brexit be­ing a sen­si­ble idea, gun own­er­ship help­ing re­duce crime, and so on. By con­trast, one of the hardest truths to ac­cept is that you – you, of all peo­ple! – are just as sus­cep­ti­ble, in prin­ci­ple, to the very same mis­take.

That’s the gist of years of re­search into “mo­ti­vated rea­son­ing”: across the po­lit­i­cal spec­trum, we use rea­son not sim­ply to get at the facts, but for all sorts of ul­te­rior mo­tives, such as per­suad­ing oth­ers of our opin­ions, feel­ing a sense of be­long­ing to our tribe, or re­duc­ing the sense of mis­match be­tween our be­liefs and re­al­ity. Iron­i­cally, there­fore, the idea that only those id­iots on the other side are guilty of mo­ti­vated rea­son­ing is it­self a case of mo­ti­vated rea­son­ing. To imag­ine one­self im­mune to fake news is fake news – at least ac­cord­ing to stud­ies like the one that found leavers and re­main­ers are equally likely to be­lieve false sto­ries that bol­stered their views.

One of the sneakier forms of the prob­lem, high­lighted in a re­cent es­say by the Amer­i­can ethi­cist Jen­nifer Zam­zow, is “so­lu­tion aver­sion”: peo­ple judge the se­ri­ous­ness of a so­cial prob­lem, it’s been found, partly based on how ap­petis­ing or dis­pleas­ing they find the pro­posed so­lu­tion. Ob­vi­ously, that’s il­log­i­cal: the fact that you might hate pay­ing more tax to keep the NHS afloat has no bear­ing on whether or not the NHS is in cri­sis. But that’s how peo­ple rea­son: show Amer­i­cans who sup­port gun control an ar­ti­cle suggest­ing that looser gun laws would help de­ter violent bur­glar­ies, and they’ll judge violent bur­glary less of a prob­lem than if they’re told tighter laws are the an­swer. Tell some­one who op­poses gov­ern­ment reg­u­la­tions that they’re the only so­lu­tion to cli­mate change, and he’s more likely to re­ject the idea that it’s a se­ri­ous is­sue to be­gin with. And the point isn’t just that peo­ple say these things, so as not to make their prej­u­dices look silly. It’s that they’re gen­uinely less likely to be­lieve that problems re­quir­ing un­palat­able solutions are problems at all.

Switch the fo­cus to per­sonal mat­ters, and it’s clear that so­lu­tion aver­sion is an­other man­i­fes­ta­tion of our old Freudian friend, de­nial. You’ll be strongly mo­ti­vated to deny problems in your re­la­tion­ship if you dread the lone­li­ness of sin­gle­hood; or the fact that your work feels mean­ing­less if your dom­i­nant fear is fi­nan­cial in­se­cu­rity. Who couldn’t em­pathise with that kind of urge to deny what’s too scary to face? Which is why, to turn back to pol­i­tics, mo­ti­vated rea­son­ing ul­ti­mately of­fers grounds for hope. Af­ter all, if the other side’s re­fusal to en­gage with the facts is ex­plained by sheer stu­pid­ity, or by evil, there’s no way for­ward. On the other hand, if it’s the un­for­tu­nate re­sult of an em­i­nently re­lat­able re­sponse to feel­ing afraid, at least there’s a shared start­ing point from which we might reach more un­der­stand­ing.

If we can’t agree on the facts, these days, at least we can agree that it’s al­most uni­ver­sally dif­fi­cult to face them

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