It's easy to see why research on motivated political reasoning/cognition has gotten a lot of attention in the blogosophere lately. It fits nicely with our intuitions about how people interpret political information (and by people, we mean other people, because our political decisions are all perfectly rational), and you don't have to look very far to see instances of motivated political reasoning. This week's news about Tom Delay, for example, has highlighted the fact that liberals are often all too ready to assume Delay is guilty, while conservatives, faced with the same facts, are equally ready to assume that Delay's legal troubles are the result of a liberal conspiracy to harm a prominent conservative. But you know, all this talk of motivated political reasoning is kind of depressing, and it gives motivated reasoning a bad rap. So I thought I'd talk a little bit about motivated reasoning in another domain, romantic relationships, where the good it can do is more apparent.
To start, think about what romantic relationships are. In most cases, two individuals who are likely to be very different from each other (at least on basic personality dimensions1) commit to each other in a way that has a the wide range of practical implications, concerning finances, careers, child rearing, location, etc. On top of all that (and perhaps because of it), we are generally pretty emotionally invested, staking much of our quality of life on the quality of our close relationships. So it's in our best interest that these relationships be satisfying. Contrary to the common wisdom (even among psychologists, especially therapists), though, realism and satisfaction tend to make poor bedfellows, with our satisfaction decreasing as our awareness of our partners' faults increases2. Right away, then, we can see how motivated reasoning might be good for romantic relationships. If you want to be satisfied in a relationship, then you're going to be motivated to see your partner in a positive light. Or, as Shakespeare put it in A Midsummer Night's Dream (a quote stolen from Murray et al.3), "Things base and vile, holding no quantity, Love can transform to form and dignity. Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind. And therefore is winged Cupid painted blind."
In what ways is motivated reasoning used in relationships? I'm glad you asked. Let's start with attributions. Fincham and Bradbury4 conducted a 12-month study involving 130 couples in which the effects of different types of attributions on marital satisfaction were measured. They found that when participants attributed positive behaviors by their partners to situational factors, and negative behaviors to the partners themselves (as opposed to situational factors), their relationship satisfaction was significantly lower, 12 months later, than for participants who attributed positive behaviors to their partners, and negative behaviors to the situation. In other words, satisfied participants interpreted bad stuff as being caused by the situation, and positive stuff as being caused by their romantic partners.
Showing that differences in attribution affect relationship satisfaction is great, but maybe in relationships that are working, the good stuff really is more attributable to the person, and the bad stuff more attributable to the situation. To show that people are using motivated reasoning, we'd have to show that, at least in some cases, their perceptions of their partners seem to diverge from reality. This would indicate that they're selectively choosing the facts on which they base their perceptions in order to arrive at the desired conclusion. The first line of evidence for this divergence from reality comes from research showing that most people believe their own romantic partners to be more virtuous than the average5. Of course, most people's partners can't be better than average, but as Murray et al. (reference in footnote 3) point out, this could simply be the result of accurate perception of one's partner, and inaccurate perception of what the average is. So, in order to look for unrealistic perceptions, they conducted a study expressly designed to compare people's perception of their romantic partners to two converging measures of "reality." First, they gathered 77 married and 28 cohabitating couples, and gave each partner two tests (27 items in all) measuring positive and negative attributes. Each partner rated both him or herself, and his or her partner on each attribute. This allowed Murray et al. to compare partners' perceptions of each other to their self-perceptions. The participants also completed a test measuring their satisfaction with their relationship.
To add another measure of "reality," each couple was asked to provide the name of a friend who could evaluate both the two partners and the quality of their relationship. Murray et al. tracked those friends down, and sent them the two tests completed by the couples, and asked them to complete them for both members of the pair. Each friend also rated how close they were to the couple with whom they were friends, and how close they were to the couple. Thus, Murray et al. could compare the partners' perception of each other and their self-perceptions to the perceptions of their friends, with self-perceptions and friends' perceptions creating two measures of "reality." If motivated reasoning is at work, we'd expect partners' perception of each other to diverge from both self and friend perceptions.
What they found is pretty straightforward. Partners' self-perceptions and their friends' perceptions of them were very similar, indicating that they could both be used as accurate measures of reality. They also found that there was a small relationship between both self and friend perception and relationship satisfaction. People who perceived themselves as having more positive attributes, and fewer negative attributes, and whose friends perceived themselves as having more positive and fewer negative attributes, had partners who were more satisfied with their relationships. Thus, people were more satisfied with relationships when their partners had a lot of positive attributes (duh!). More importantly for our purposes, though, there was a statistical interaction between the two measures of "reality" (self and friend perceptions) and partners' perception of each other, on the one hand, and relationship satisfaction on the other. People who were unsatisfied with their relationship tended to see their partners as having fewer positive attributes than their partners and friends, while people who were satisfied in their relationships tended to perceive more positive attributes than either their friends or partners. Put differently, the perceptions of the dissatisfied were more negative than reality, and the perceptions of the satisfied were more positive than reality.
This association between perceptions that diverge from reality in one direction or the other, and relationship satisfaction, is pretty clear evidence of motivated reasoning in relationships. In the case of a satisfied partner, he or she is motivated to believe that his or her partner has a wealth of positive attributes, while a dissatisfied partner is motivated to believe that his or her partner has few positive attributes (thus making it possible to attribute the relationship problems to the other person, and justifying one's dissatisfaction). The question, of course, is whether satisfaction (or dissatisfaction) causes motivated reasoning, or motivated reasoning causes satisfaction. I don't know of any experimental work on the relationship between the two, to date, so the causal question is still unanswered. However, I suspect that it works in both directions. The more satisfied you are, the more motivated you are to see your partner in a positive light, and the more you see your partner in a positive light, the more satisfied you'll be.
Of course, being motivated to see your partner in a positive light, and thus selectively interpreting the facts so will do so, isn't always a good thing. It likely causes us to overlook many faults that might one day cause problems in our relationships. Still, the evidence that being realistic about our partners' faults is harmful to relationships is overwhelming. And that's not really very surprising. If we all focused on the things we don't like about our partners, no relationship would last very long. So all in all, you should be wary of thinking too poorly of motivated reasoning. It might save your marriage one day.
1Lykken, D.T., & Tellegen, A. (1993). Is human mating adventitious or the result of lawful choice? A twin study of mate selection. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 65(1), 56-58.
2Huston, T.L., & Vangelisti, A.L. (1991). Socioemotional behavior and satisfaction in marital relationships: A longitudinal study. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 61(5), 721-733.
3Murray, S.L., Holmes, J.G., Dolderman, D., & Griffin, D.W. (2000). What the motivated mind sees: Comparing friends' perspectives to married partners' views of each other. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 36(6), 600-620.
4Fincham, F.D., & Bradbury, T.N. (1993). Marital satisfaction, depression, and attributions: a longitudinal study. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 64(3), 442-452.
5Murray, S.L., & Holmes, J.G. (1997). A leap of faith? positive illusions in romantic relationships. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 23, 586-604.