Motivated Reasoning and Addressing Excuses

People don’t reason to find out the truth but to win arguments.

Reasoning is generally seen as a means to improve knowledge and make better decisions. However, much evidence shows that reasoning often leads to epistemic distortions and poor decisions. This suggests that the function of reasoning should be rethought. Our hypothesis is that the function of reasoning is argumentative. It is to devise and evaluate arguments intended to persuade…. Skilled arguers, however, are not after the truth but after arguments supporting their views. This explains the notorious confirmation bias.

Mercier – Sperber, 2010

Similarly, people don’t often use their intellect to find a solution, but to find the perfect excuse not to.

It is useless to address the excuses at face value

Every step down the road to authoritarian oppression can be explained away with perfectly rational excuses.

  • I did not challenge the stupidity of central planning and the inherent corruption because I feared the loss of my job (until the economy went south anyway due to central planning and unchallenged corruption).
  • I did not want to find out whether the victims of a hate campaign were actually guilty of anything because I was busy with my own difficult life (until one day I became the scapegoat).

The act itself (or inaction, more often) seems inconsequential, the explanations are perfectly rational. But the explanations are not the cause of the action (or inaction). It would be useless to address excuses in communication.

  • I did not challenge central planning and corruption because I have a deep-seated desire to see the world as just.
  • I did not want to find out whether the new enemies of the state are guilty because I feared to find out that they are not.

We make micro-decisions every day that challenge or approve the system we live in.

This is why we need to focus on authoritarian microhabits and behavioural (and attitude) nudges to dislodge them.

  • We may choose to challenge petty corruption of bureaucrats – or come up with perfectly rational excuses and rationalisations why we don’t.
  • We can ridicule and scorn our peers for trying to challenge petty corruption – or support them.
  • We can choose to blow the whistle – or name a thousand reason why we don’t.
  • We can uncritically consume power-hungry fearmongering – or we can ridicule it.
  • We can unconsciously identify with our leaders and vote for suppression of our kind to keep other people at bay – or we may realise that there is not much to win by voting away our own individual liberties.
  • We can unthinkingly attack the weaker and blame the victim – or we may start to entertain the uncomfortable notion that sometimes even the aggressor and the strong may be in the wrong.
  • We can dismiss the desire to improve as naive – or we can start to ridicule the cynic’s pose of cleverness.
  • We can keep angrily punishing failure – or rebranding it as a learning experience.

As I said, excuses are plenty – and perfectly rational if we draw the limits of our rationality close enough to ourselves in space and time. Too bad that excuses have never solved a single problem.

Toxic excuses

Sometimes excuses we use prove to be worse and more damaging than the uncomfortable fact we wanted to avoid with them. Living up to ur own excuses has the potential to create a lifetime of cynical spiral.


One thought on “Motivated Reasoning and Addressing Excuses

  1. Pingback: About the Project | Dare To Be Free

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