In brief: Confirmation bias and motivated reasoning

People generally feel their opinions are rational and carefully considered. In reality, we are all vulnerable to cognitive biases that distort our understanding of the world. We don’t give all facts and pieces of information the same attention or consideration, and we have an unconscious tendency to selectively find and interpret information that reinforces what we already believe.

That’s because confronting information that challenges our beliefs is stressful and unpleasant. The desire to avoid the mental discomfort of having a deeply held belief challenged makes it easy to fall prey to confirmation bias and motivated reasoning.

This infographic offers an overview of how confirmation bias and motivated reasoning impact our beliefs and outlines some key tips on how to best defend ourselves against cognitive biases. Confirmation bias is an innate, unconscious tendency to interpret information in ways that confirm what we already believe — or want to believe. Similar to confirmation bias, motivated reasoning occurs when someone actively looks for reasons why they’re right and rejects facts and research that don’t fit their beliefs. And confirmation bias can actually cause people to engage in motivated reasoning. 

It’s important to recognize that confirmation bias and motivated reasoning impact our information habits and play a big role in our vulnerability to misinformation and conspiratorial thinking. These natural tendencies are also exacerbated by political polarization and can cause people to ignore facts and valid evidence on “the other side” of a highly charged debate.

So, how can we guard against these cognitive pitfalls? This infographic details three of our best defenses:

  1. Slow down! We think more rationally and fairly when we minimize the role of our emotions.
  2. Be honest. Taking stock of our current beliefs and approaching new information with an open mind are vital. No one is always right. A willingness to reconsider our current beliefs is an essential part of maintaining rational, well-informed beliefs.
  3. Acknowledge personal biases. Our natural inclination to engage in confirmation bias and motivated reasoning is intensified for issues and subjects we feel most strongly about. That also means we’re most vulnerable to being misled by information on these topics.

Remember: Having our beliefs confirmed and supported feels good. That makes all of us susceptible to cognitive biases. But understanding how these biases work can go a long way toward guarding against them.