The dark side of motivation

(featured image: Jesper Sehested – PlusLexia/Flickr CC BY)

Motivation is what allows us to survive, prosper and reproduce – but it is also behind the worst of polarization and tribalism. We should use it with care, and engage critical thinking

How come we are here? A good few billion years ago, a bunch of chemicals in the primordial soup that sloshed around a young Earth combined to form what we would, much later, call ‘life’ – organisms that somehow possessed two key capacities. They were able to reproduce, and they could distinguish what was beneficial to them from what was detrimental. The motivation of these organisms to reproduce and, in order to do so successfully, to survive long enough by pursuing the beneficial and avoid the detrimental kicked off an unending evolutionary chain, and the rest, as they say, is history.

That motivation has, since then, become a bit more sophisticated, but in essence, we – and our fellow living organisms – are still driven by strong motives to do what is (or rather, often, what feels) good for us, and avoid what is or feels bad. Our human bodies may be incredibly complex, certainly compared to the simplicity of our oldest ancestors, and equipped with vast cognitive powers, we may be living in incredibly complex societal arrangements, yet our judgement what (not) to do still reduces to that very simplest of emotions – good, or bad? (It is no coincidence that ‘emotion’ and ‘motive’ share the same root: the Latin verb movere, to move.)

Complex motivations, likes and dislikes

Being as complex as we are, not everything that feels good is actually essential for our survival or for our reproduction. For example, if like your correspondent you are very fond of tomatoes, but have a strong dislike of cucumbers, eating a lot of tomatoes and going out of your way to avoid cucumber is unlikely to make you live longer or be more successful at producing offspring. Not eating tomatoes and occasionally having some cucumber is likewise unlikely to kill you prematurely or make you sterile.

Got motivation, but got no motivated reasoning (image: Los Alamos National Laboratory/Flickr CC BY)

Over time we have developed a vast array of possible likes and dislikes, way beyond a taste or distaste of certain foods. Pretty much any situation in which there are multiple options, there are some we like (or dislike) more than others – where to live, what to do for a living, how to spend the time we are not working, whether or not to have a family, which groups to belong to, how much tax we (and others!) would need to pay, whether we are for or against the death penalty, the legalization of same-sex marriage, or being a member of the EU. In any of these choices, as long pursuing what we like and avoiding what we dislike is not materially in conflict with our survival or our ability to reproduce, we should be fine from an evolutionary perspective.

But when likes and dislikes influence how we think, there may be trouble ahead. Hoping that the future will play out as we desire is not problematic in itself, and even a bit of wishful thinking is mostly harmless, provided we don’t take our wishes for reality. However, we move onto shaky ground when we allow our likes and dislikes to influence our reasoning. If we are selective in collecting and evaluating the evidence for an argument or a decision we need to make, guided by what we would like the outcome to be, or based on the fact that we’d rather be right than be proved wrong, we are exhibiting confirmation bias. That is likely to lead us to incorrect conclusions, or weak or false arguments.

More worrying still is the phenomenon of motivated belief. Where confirmation bias is about seeking to support a prior belief, here we actively adopt a belief based on what we like to be true, rather than what is more likely to be true. We may believe we are clever or handsome, that our spouse loves us and is not cheating on us, or that what we have achieved in life is owed to our hard work and merit, and not to luck. We may believe that property prices will rise (and make us rich), or that vaccines are harmful because all our friends believe so too (and we like to remain friends). Such beliefs feel good, but if they are not accurate, we are deluding ourselves and we may make poor choices as a result.

Closely linked with this, and arguable worst of all is motivated reasoning. We go through what is, ostensibly, a deliberate process of rational thought, but both in the selection of the evidence we use, and in application of the rules of effective reasoning. But we apply a strong bias towards the desired outcome, rather than keep an open mind. Often this means working backward from the conclusion to the premises, and thus construct a plausible-enough looking argument. It is the pretence of proper reasoning that makes motivated reasoning such a pernicious phenomenon.

The recent US presidential elections form an interesting illustration. Donald Trump’s belief that he would win by a landslide conflicted with the result of the election. This cognitive dissonance between belief and reported facts was reduced by denying the official results, and reasoning that the only explanation for the reported outcome was premeditated fraud on an epic scale. Trump supporters reported spotting what they saw as anomalies proving fraud, but which were nothing of the kind – there we have confirmation bias. Trump himself was motivated in his belief that he had won the election because that is what he deeply desired and was entitled to; many of his followers shared that belief because they too desperately wanted this to be true.

When what we like feels right

But being motivated by what we like and dislike can take a different shape. One of the things with our individual likes and dislikes is that acting them out may bring us into conflict with people who have different likes and dislikes. To handle these conflicts, any social context, from households to states, is characterized by agreements – principles that set out conditions, obligations, permissions and prohibitions that apply to all, and are aimed at keeping the peace. They can be embodied explicitly, for example in laws, terms and conditions, and implicitly in social norms.

Terms and conditions ostensibly were at the centre when, following the insurrection at the Capitol on 6 January, Donald Trump was banned from Twitter and other popular social media platforms, and Parler, a social media platform popular among Trump supporters was removed from the Google and Apple app stores and from Amazon’s cloud service. But these service providers were accused of bias, of being motivated by a dislike of Trump and his supporters, for instance since they had not acted in the same way in the context of the violent Black Lives Matter demonstrations last year.

Legitimate action or censorship? (image: Mike Licht.Flickr CC BY)

Opinions are divided on these actions. While Angela Merkel, who “considers it problematic that the president’s accounts have been permanently suspended” can hardly be described as a Trump fan, it is striking that opponents of Trump largely approve of the actions, and the other side is largely critical. How come? If we start to regard our own likes and dislikes not as preferences, but as moral imperatives – like = right, dislike = wrong – our judgement and our actions are more likely to be biased. We may be tempted into selectively interpreting the societal principles accordingly, or indeed to reject them outright. Not likely concerning tomatoes and cucumbers: few people (and certainly not your correspondent) have any desire that everyone thinks tomatoes are the best food ever, and cucumbers the worst, perhaps, but when it concerns politics, the step is easily made.

A Twitter thread by the journalist and author Cory Doctorow, commenting on the banning of Trump and Parler contains a hint of how that might happen:

To be clear, he is not in favour of the banning of Parler. But his tweets show how easy it is to stumble into it. There are undoubtedly good moral arguments against making Holocaust jokes (as there are against making jokes about insurrectionists, like the one that one of them got killed by tasering himself in the testicles). But when a personal condemnation of an action on moral grounds is pitted against the resistance to outlawing on the other, the former may well end up winning the tug-of-war.

Let us be honest: if we dislike something or someone, we inherently like the prospect of their being banned. The principle embodied in the saying “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”, often ascribed to Voltaire is a fine ideal, but it is really hard to put into practice. If our “like” manifests itself as a moral imperative, it is really, really hard. The sincerity of our beliefs does not preclude them from being motivated.

The power of ‘irrespective’

Our biases are strongest when we are motivated by what we see as absolutely right and wrong. And so is our denial that we are biased – the belief that we (and our confederates) are not biased, because we are right, and they are wrong. It is the denial of our biases, and the kind of motivated reasoning that follows from it that is, I think, a major contributor to polarization and tribalism.

And while the biases are inevitable, the denial is not. We can counteract it by practising critical thinking, keeping an open mind and impartially considering the evidence when analysing a situation. When an issue involves moral preferences, we can remind ourselves of where our sympathies lie, and ensure we are aware of our biases, rather than deny them.

In particular, we can apply what can be called moral algebra. Algebra uses symbols to express absolute truths. For example, the equation for a straight line expressing the relationship between two variables x and y, y = ax + b, embodies the fact that if y equals 0, x equals -b/a, and if x equals 0, y equals b – irrespective of the values of a and b. It is true and valid for any value of a and b.

If we make an argument, come to a conclusion, advocate an action, or pursue a decision – are we doing so irrespective of who or what is involved, irrespective of our likes or dislikes, or are we doing so precisely because of our likes and dislikes? Holding up the mirror to our reasoning can help us detect the degree to which it is motivated, and think again.

Let us keep that mirror well-polished, and within easy reach.

About koenfucius

Wisdom or koenfusion? Maybe the difference is not that big.
This entry was posted in Behavioural economics, Cognitive biases and fallacies, Emotions, Morality, Psychology, Society and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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