“Motivated reasoning” is a psychological term that describes how people interpret information the way they wish, rather than for what it is.Therése Lind Photo credit Thor Balkhed
“We often think that we reconsider our views in light of new information. Our research confirms that we misinterpret information, in this case regarding immigration, to make it match our world view”, says Thérese Lind, doctoral student at the Department of Management and Engineering at Linköping University, and principal author of the article.
Previous studies on motivated reasoning conducted in the United States show that Democrats are better at interpreting statistics which show that stricter gun laws lead to a reduction in crime. Republicans at interpreting statistics showing the opposite. However, few studies have been conducted of motivated reasoning in Sweden, and none have investigated refugee intake.
Is crime up or down?
In one experiment, Thérese Lind investigated motivated reasoning in relation to statistics regarding refugee intake and crime. In the study, 1015 participants from Sweden were asked to interpret information from fictitious scenarios. In one scenario there was numeric information showing that in an area that had received many refugees, crime had either increased or decreased. The task was to interpret what the information said about the link between refugee intake and crime.
There was also a scenario where the participants had to say whether a skincare product made their skin better or worse.
The participants were asked to state which political party they vote for, and to indicate their world view, i.e. whether they saw themselves as “more of a Swede” or “more of a world citizen”.
Views play key role
The results showed that political party affiliation and world view play a significant role when the participants interpreted information relating to immigration and crime.
Those who defined themselves as “more of a Swede” had less difficulty correctly interpreting figures showing the greatest increase in crime rates in areas that had taken in refugees. And similarly, the “world citizens” found it easier to correctly interpret figures showing the greatest decrease in crime rates in areas that had taken in refugees.
As for the scenario with the skincare product, neither political party affiliation nor world view affected the participants’ ability to interpret the information. Their ability to correctly interpret the information increased, compared to their ability to interpret immigration-related statistics.
The study also showed that people with a greater analytical ability were less inclined to engage in motivated reasoning. This pattern contradicts previous research, which suggested that people with greater analytical ability are more inclined to engage in motivated reasoning.
“Our results indicate that motivated reasoning is an intuitive process, rather than a conscious consideration of information in order to make it suit one’s world view”, says Thérese Lind.
She believes that motivated reasoning from a social perspective can be problematic, for instance if politicians increase polarisation in society.
“On the individual level, it can be useful to know that this is how people work, including oneself. And that society has to encourage critical thinking.”
Thérese Lind’s co-authors are Arvid Erlandsson, Daniel Västfjäll and Gustav Tinghög, all from JEDI, the lab for behavioural and neuroeconomic research at Linköping University.
Motivated reasoning when assessing the effects of refugee intake, Thérese Lind, Arvid Erlandsson, Daniel Västfjäll and Gustav Tinghög (2018) Behavioural Public Policy.