Tangled Thinking 2: Motivated Cognition and Its Opposite

Motivated cognition is the state of emotionally needing to believe something is true, whether it actually is true or not.

I've found that a good kinaesthetic metaphor for motivated cognition is pressure.  If you're forcing things with your mind -- if you're going "it's GOT to be this way, or ELSE" -- then you aren't actually open to the truth being whatever it might happen to be.  

Defensiveness, anxiety, revulsion, despair, eagerness to please or to be acceptable, can motivate you to believe that the convenient and pleasant thing is true -- or that the awful worst-case scenario is -- or both at once (e.g. anxiety can make you fear the worst but flinch from it and profess the best-case scenario.)

It's not motivated cognition for motivation to be involved in cognition.  We think most clearly, in fact, when we're motivated to do so; for instance, someone who stands to make money by making the correct prediction will be more motivated to be correct than someone who's merely having a conversation.  

In fact, I think motivation is essential to all the words we use to talk about thinking well  -- rationality, wisdom, objectivity, science, empiricism, common sense, "Looking", etc. These words get corrupted by connotations of smugness, coldness, superiority, authoritarianism, etc, and new words have to be continually invented to point at the same thing the old words were intended to point at.  The thing itself is, perhaps, best described as "thinking in the way everyone naturally does when they actually care about the object of their thought."  

If you care about the thing in the real world, you will not want to be wrong about it; a delusion, however pleasant, won't give you what you want.  You still can be wrong about it, of course, but your incentives are to be as correct as you can be.  A certain amount of pretense and posturing and game-playing may drop away suddenly when, for instance, you find your child's safety is at stake; suddenly it is vitally important to get real.

(Of course, phrases like "get real", "be sensible", "be reasonable", often are used to mean "shut up and do what I tell you", which is not the thing. A person who Actually Cares about getting something done may often be perceived as an unreasonable or irrational person, because she is doing something that doesn't meet with everyone's approval.)

There's something related about words like "literally", "truly", "actually", "really", "very", "honestly" -- and it's telling that over time language evolves to make them all used as words for emphasis instead of denoting literal exact truth.  It's hard to find a way to phrase in words "I'm pointing at reality now" as opposed to pointing at a model of reality, or playing a game with language, or speaking 'in character' as the persona you want to embody right now.  

Notions like "rationality" are attempts to encourage people to think and speak literally rather than performatively.

It seems like sort of a mistake to present them as a specialized discipline to be taught rather than a stance to be adopted that most people actually have by default from time to time. Doing science doesn't actually involve going through The Scientific Method as you're taught in elementary school; but while there may not really be a Scientific Method, there is definitely a scientific mindset. It's the same mindset you have naturally when you're curious.  

If you try to codify how people think when they're being curious, it winds up sounding like nothing at all.  "Just, y'know, thinkLookCare! Try!"

Or it comes across as condescending: "Most people go through life never actually trying! You should actually try!" There's not much content to this, but the "actually" is gesturing at something: the rubber meeting the road, the moon and not the pointing finger. 

By contrast, motivated cognition is being motivated to have certain cognitions, inside your head, rather than being motivated to seek outcomes out in the world.

It's kind of weird that we have this feature at all. Why would it be evolutionarily adaptive? Or, perhaps it's not adaptive but it's a 'natural flaw' that most possible ways to make a brain would fall into?

Why do we (often) care more about the insides of our heads than what's going on outside them?

4 responses
I agree with you, but you're assuming that people should want to "care about the thing in the real world". The single main problem with Western philosophy is that most of it is built on the foundational assumption that you should not care about the temporary and imperfect things in the real world, but that philosophy should concern itself only with that which is perfect and eternal. Observing things in the real world is useless, as they are only misleading imperfect copies of the originals; you should instead concern yourself with accessing the originals, whether that be by meditating on the perfection of God (as in Plato and Christianity), or by seeking Laws of Nature (as Newton and Leibniz did, and as many misguided humanities professors and soft-scientists have done recently, e.g, Noam Chomsky, Jacques Derrida, art historian Rudolf Arnheim). Hence Plato, Christianity, Marxism, and post-modernism, among other belief systems. There's a passage on p. 24 of Arnheim's 1971 book "Entropy and Art" which proves the depth at which this stubborn belief is still embedded in the minds of Platonist intellectuals. He's arguing that Boltzman, who invented statistical mechanics, got it backwards, and that the laws of thermodynamics aren't due to the motions of atoms, but that the motions of atoms are due to the laws of thermodynamics. Ontologically, this distinction makes a difference. Arnheim believes that Laws of Nature are ontologically prior to nature, and hence can have no mechanistic explanation. nite laws even in the behavior of warm bodies [14, p.316]." Is it foolish to assume that, on the contrary, the microstates average out sensibly because they are controlled by macroscopic laws, such as that of the tendency towards equilibrium... Some empirically minded thinkers talk about natural laws as though they confused the laws with their actual manifestations. Any law is an If-Then proposition; it indicates what will happen when certain conditions are fulilled. It refers to these conditions and consequences in their pure shape, which is never met in practice because any physical operation is muffled by the noise due to the interference of other operations. It is this empirical noise that prevents us from predicting any actual occurrence with absolute accuracy... Such muffling does not make the law itself statistical but only its practical embodiments; and the insistence on the absolute purity of a law is not a Platonic fantasy but derives from the awareness that to understand is to isolate the relatively simple underlying patterns of forces from their adulterating neighbors. >>>>> You'd find the same conception of laws in Newton or Leibniz. This is, in fact, Rationalism, which does not mean reasoning correctly, but reasoning strictly logically, from first principles, assuming that we already have all the vocabulary and categories necessary to completely summarize the world, and that we can do so reliably, precisely, and losslessly. The medieval scholastics and the Marxists are rational; modern science is not. Empiricism, unfortunately, is hardly represented in Western history, and has been persecuted relentlessly for most of the past 2000 years, so that even when it existed, nearly all the writings about it have been destroyed. (Plato was the first person to encourage burning the writings of empiricists.) Instead, today rationalism is opposed by phenomenologists, social constructivists, process theorists, post-modernists, and other people who generally argue that it's foolish to seek after facts OR eternal truths, neither of which exist; instead, people believe those things which are most-helpful and convenient to their society for them to believe. That is, you're assuming that to want to understand things in the world is obviously the best policy; but that assumption is explicitly denied by both the major sides in Western philosophy today.
The website for some reason cut this out of the Arnheim quote:
Hmm, it's consistently cutting out the paragraphs after a bunch of '
Okay; this website will throw out some length of text found after a less-than symbol. I'll try yet again. This should be the start of the Arnheim quote: ... it is suggested that macroscopic lawfulness exists only because the disorderly microstates happen to average out to something sensible. Ludwig Boltzmann, who discovered the mathematical relation between entropy and probability, wrote: "It is solely owing to the fact that we always get the same average values, even when the most irregular occurrences take place under the same circumstances, that we perceive perfectly denite laws even in the behavior of warm bodies [14, p.316]."