The human understanding, when it has once adopted an opinion ... draws all things else to support and agree with it. Though there may be (more) instances to be found on the other side, yet these it either neglects or despises, or else by some distinction sets aside and rejects. -F. Bacon
It's been a while since I've posted a rant about an abuse of cognitive science by the popular press or bloggers, so I figure I've got catching up to do. Fortunately, both the popular press and bloggers have given me plenty of material, by writing about research by Drew Westen on motivated reasoning in politics (a few of the dozens of contributions by bloggers, none of which I recommend, can be found here, here, here, here, here, here, and here). he gist of the stories, both in the press and in the blogs (because the blogs got all their information from the stories, of course) is that "partisans," by which they mean people who are committed to voting for Democrats or Republicans, react to negative information about their preferred candidates emotionally, rather than rationally. The common refrain is, "partisans" are irrational. What the participants in the study are actually doing, according to Westen, is using the "hot" reasoning system, a system that is not exclusive to political partisans, and is not exclusive to political reasoning. In fact, we all use it quite often, particularly in social situations. So if "partisans" are irrational, so are we, even if our irrationality doesn't show itself in politics as strongly as their's does (though I bet you could make a case that many of those bloggers, especially the one who runs the first site I linked, have trouble using the "cold" system in anything even remotely related to politics).
OK, now that I've gotten that out of my system, I can move on. Before I get to the study, or even a little background to situate it, let me say that the study, by Westen et al. has not yet been published, but instead has just recently been presented at a conference (the Annual Conference of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology). Ordinarily I don't present unpublished work (I don't think this work has even been submitted for publication!) here unless I know at least one of the researchers involved. If I do, then I feel confident, based on what I know of his or her prior work, that the unpublished work is of a high quality. In the case of this study, however, I only know a little of one author's (Westen's) work, and therefore can't vouch for its quality without it first being subjected to peer review. The research report is well written and detailed, at least, so I think it's possible to evaluate the methods, results, and conclusions. Furthermore, because there has been so much attention to the study, so much of it based in ignorance (of the study itself, and of its context), I feel compelled to write about it now, rather than six months to a year from now when it's been published and everyone's forgotten about it, but integrated the bad information about it from the press into their background knowledge. Naturally, a post on this topic will be long (I'm wordy; sue me), but the study deserves a careful analysis that includes at least the bare minimum of context. So, I'm going to divide it up into two posts, with the first post containing the background, and the second post discussing the study. Hopefully that will ease the reading load for anyone who's actually bothered to read this far (hi Mom).
Motivated Reasoning and the Hot vs. the Cold
When cognitive science was born, emotion essentially became taboo, and until recently (say the last decade), remained so, in the serious study of cognition. This also seems to have been true, for the most part, in economics, where rationality was discussed with little reference to affect. But in social psychology, emotion was often central, even if it wasn't referenced directly, in the work of people like Festinger and Heider in the 60s, and Kruglanski and Kunda in the 80s. Cognitive psychologists were so afraid of emotion that some of them, like Richard Nisbett and Lee Ross (two big names in the history of cog sci), went to great links to show that cognitive mechanisms could account for the findings that social psychologists thought were in part the result of emotion. But as the field of social cognition grew into its own, and neuroscientists like Antonio Damasio showed just how important emotion is for cognition, emotion has become fair game in cognitive scientific research. And that has led to increased attention to motivated reasoning, and its use of "hot" cognition, as opposed to strictly "rational," "cold" reasoning.
What is motivated reasoning? Kunda1 describes motivated reasoning with the following example:
[P]eople who want to believe that they will be academically successful may recall more of their past academic successes than of their failures. They may also use their world knowledge to construct new theories about how their particular personality traits may predispose them to academic success... If they succeed in accessing and constructing appropriate beliefs, they may feel justified in concluding that they will be academically successful, not realizing that they also possess knowledge that could be used to support the opposite conclusion. The biasing role of goals is thus constrained by one's ability to construct a justification for the desired conclusion: People will come to believe what they want to believe only to the extent that reason permits. Often they will be forced to acknowledge and accept undesirable conclusions, as they appear to when confronted with strong arguments for undesired or counterattitudinal positions. (p. 482)In motivated reasoning, memory searches, interpretations of incoming information, evaluations of arguments, and even perception, are biased in such a way that we will be more likely to arrive at a desired conclusion (called a directional motivation; in the above example, the conclusion that we are likely to be academically successful is the directional motivation). The way this is achieved, in essence, is by limiting the information that is retrieved from long term memory into current working memory (the store of information that is available for current processing), thereby biasing the information available for supporting or evaluating conclusions and arguments, as well as interpreting incoming information (recall, as I've said here many times before, that incoming information is always interpreted in light of the background knowledge that it activates in memory). As Kunda notes in the quoted passage, our ability to arrive at that conclusion isn't absolute. If we're continually confronted with information that conflicts with that conclusion, we will be forced to deal with it. But as long as we can, we'll only deal with that information that is consistent with our conclusion (see, e.g., the quick discussion of the "my-side bias" in this recent post).
Motivated reasoning can, despite its limits, be quite powerful. Consider some experimental results. In some studies, participants' are asked to assess the probability of events, some of which are more desirable than others. Their ratings of the probability of an event depends on whether they found those events desirable. Desirable events are believed to be more likely to occur than undesirable events2, even when the desired event occurred less often in the observed series3. In other experiments, people's beliefs about their own introvertedness or extrovertedness vary depending on whether they have been told that introversion or extroversion leads to academic success4, and they are much better at retrieving memories of experiences of introvertedness if they believe the trait will lead to success5. People will even revise upwards their beliefs about the average person's knowledge of history if it serves to diminish the accomplishment of a high test scores on a history test by an opponent in a history trivia game6.
Very recent theories of motivated reasoning in social domains (e.g., politics) have begun to tap into the "hot cognition" system to explain motivated reasoning phenomena. In one theory7, important because it influences the perspective of Westen and his colleagues, the use of the "hot" system works something like this: First, through evaluation, social concepts become "affectively charged." This means that they develop an associated valence (positive or negative), and this valence is stored with those concepts in memory. When social concepts are activated, and retrieved from long term memory, they bring their valence with them. This activation of the concept with its valence serves to establish our "directional motivation," and thus to color our interpretation of any new information we are bringing in at the time, as well as biasing memory searches and so on. Lodge and Taber (see footnote 7) list the following situations in which we're likely to use hot cognition-driven motivated reasoning
- One's attitudes are challenged.
- An affective judgment is called for.
- The consequences of being wrong are weak.
- The judgmental task is complex.
- "Objective" information is not readily available or the evidence is ambiguous.
- Disconfirming evidence is not highlighted.
- Counter-arguments come easily to mind.
- One is distracted or under time pressure.
Here's how this would work in political reasoning. Imagine you're a staunch G.W. Bush supporter. Your Bush concept therefore has a strong positive emotional valence associated with it. Anytime your Bush concept is activated, the associated valence will be activated, and you will be motivated to interpret any incoming information about Bush in a positive light. If potentially negative information about Bush comes to your attention, you will search for information in memory and in the environment that will help you to come to a positive interpretation of that information. Once again, that does not mean that you will ultimately be able to interpret that incoming information in a positive light. If the negative aspects of that information are overwhelming, or you are unable to retrieve information from memory that will help you interpret it in a positive light, you will be forced to interpret that information negatively. This may then cause you to update the valence associated with Bush to make it more negative (though it may still have a positive overall valence). Recent studies in the political domain have supported this picture of political reasoning8.
This is the theoretical and empirical background against which Westen and his colleagues' work exists. Before turning to that work (in the next post), though, I want to say a little bit about the neuroscience of the hot and cold systems, because their study is an imaging study. In an earlier imaging study by Goel and Dolan9, participants were given emotionally-salient and emotionally-neutral syllogisms like the following, in order to activate the hot and cold systems:
Emotionally-Salient: No doctors are criminals. .While they read the syllogisms, their brains were scanned using an fMRI machine. Using the subtraction method (the details and problems of which I've discussed before, here), they were able to derive the activation of various regions in each condition relative to a baseline and the activation in the other condition (e.g., for the emotionally-salient condition, the level of activation from an emotional baseline condition, along with the activation in the emotionally-neutral condition minus its neutral baseline, were subtracted to get the activation in the "hot" system).
Some doctors are rapists.
Some rapists are not criminals.
Emotionally-Neutral: Some rock stars are guitarists.
All guitarists can sing.
Some rock stars can not sing.
They found that when processing the emotionally-neutral syllogisms, activation in the lateral / dorsal lateral prefrontal cortex (labeled #2 in the picture, from this website), a large area associated with "executive functions," or higher-order cognition, showed increased activation, while activation in the ventral medial prefrontal cortex (labeled #3), an area associated with emotion regulation, decreased. When processing the emotionally-salient syllogisms, activation in the ventral medial prefrontal cortex, along with the fusiform gyrus, increased, while activation in the lateral/dorsal lateral prefrontal cortex decreased. Thus, the cold system activates areas associated with logical reasoning, and suppresses activity in areas associated with emotion, while the hot system activates the areas associated with emotion, and suppresses activity in the areas associated with logical reasoning. It's important to note the word "suppresses." It's important to remember this, then: the hot system doesn't shut off the logical reasoning system, it just decreases the level of activity there, perhaps to give primacy to the activity in the areas associated with emotional processing.
That should be enough information to allow you to understand Westen's work. So I'll talk about that in the next post.
1Kunda, Z. (1990). The case for motivated reasoning. Psychological Bulletin, 108(3), 480-498.
2Arrowood, A. J. & Ross, L. (1966). Anticipated effort and subjective probability.
4Kunda, Z. & Sanitioso, R. (1989). Motivated changes in the self-concept. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 25, 272-285.
5Sanitioso, R., Kunda, Z. & Fong, G. T. (1990). Motivated recruitment of autobiographical memory. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 59, 229-241.
6 Kunda (1990).
7Lodge, M. & Taber, C. (In Press). Three steps toward a theory of motivated political reasoning. In A. Lupia, M. McCubbins, & S.Popkin (Eds.), Elements of Political Reason: Understanding and Expanding the Limits of Rationality. London: Cambridge University Press.
8Lodge & Taber (In Press); Redlawsk, D.P., & Hubby, C.R. (2002). Hot cognition or cool consideration? Testing the effects of motivated reasoning on political decision making. Journal of Politics, 64, 1021-1044; Morriss, J.P., Squires, N.K., Taber, C.S., & Lodge, M. (In Press). The automatic activation of political attitudes: A psychological examination of the hot cognition hypothesis. Political Psychology.
9Goel, V., & Dolan, R.J. (2003). Reciprocal neural response within lateral and ventral medial prefrontal cortex during hot and cold reasoning. Neuroimagine, 20(4), 2314-2321.