What motivates cognition?

When I was a teenager, I think I engaged in a lot of motivated cognition. At least in an absolute sense; I don’t know how much is common. Much was regarding trees. Before I thought about this in detail, I assumed that how motivated cognition mostly works is this: I wanted to believe X, and so believed X regardless of the evidence. I looked for reasons to justify my fixed beliefs, while turning a blind eye to this dubious behavior.

On closer in(tro)spection, this is what I think really happened. I felt strongly that X was true because many good and smart adults had told me so. I also explicitly believed I should believe whatever my reasoning told me. I was inclined to change my beliefs when the information changed. However I knew that I did this, I feared that my reasoning was fallible, and I was terrified that I would come to believe not-X even though X was the truth. Then the truth would come out, or more evidence at least (and obviously the truth would be X), then all the good people who knew X would consider me evil, which was equivalent to being evil. They would also consider me stupid, for not seeing the proper counterarguments. So it was sickening to not be able to come up with a counterargument, because such a failure would immediately turn me into an evil and stupid person. Needless to say, I was quite an expert, especially on counterarguments.

So unlike in my usual model of motivated cognition, my arguments were directed at persuading myself of things I feared doubting, rather than justifying fixed beliefs to others. How often is this really what’s going on?

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  • Doug

    The distinction you’re making is between deduction and rationalization. The former takes a set of known facts and observations and tried to deduce the truth with regards to a tentative proposition. The latter starts with a foregone conclusion and tries to justify it based on the facts.

    Among most people rationalization is considered bad, and deduction good. But rationalization is an essential part of deduction, at least from a Bayesian perspective. If we’re trying to evaluate the probability of Y given facts X, then

    P(Y | X) = P(X | Y) * P(Y)/P(X)

    P(X | Y) means the probability of observing the facts X, if we start with the conclusion that Y is true. To do this, you’d come up with the most plausible story that explains X accepting Y as a foregone conclusion. This is rationalization.

    Rationalization is not bad, in fact its essential for thought and deduction. What’s bad is stopping at the rationalization step and not normalizing the plausibility of your rationalization against the probability of other explanations, as necessitated by the P(Y)/P(X) term.

    Rationalization is common, because in order to deduce we have to rationalize, but not vice versa. It’s very tempting for a truthseeker even with minor ulterior motivations to stop after he’s rationalized, or to only weaken normalize against alternative hypothesis. 

    • VV

       You seem to use the term “rationalization” with a non-standard meaning.

  • Aron Vallinder

    “Much was regarding trees.”

    Care to elaborate? :)

    • Newerspeak

      Just a guess: leaving trees standing is always better than harvesting the lumber and building things on the land.

      That’s what American environmentalists seem to think. I’m not sure about Australia’s: if I lived in a mostly undeveloped wilderness full of spiders the size of housecats, I would want to pave the whole thing over as soon as possible.

    • Karl K

       I assumed it was a reference to the type of trees discussed on http://www.reddit.com/r/trees .

  • Muelleau

    These threads about yourself are getting frustrating because they are not thematically consistent with much of the material that made me love this blog. We get it, you think about your own feelings all the time, let’s move on.

    • Siddharth

      I think one issue might be that Katja is writing more open-ended posts than Robin or Rob. By this I mean that when Robin or Rob post, they start with some interesting observations and then usually attach an analysis and at least a conclusion or two.  In contrast, Katja’s posts seem to consist of an interesting observation and very little analysis. I think many readers of this blog (including myself) have good observation skills but come here for the trenchant analyses which we many lack the skills/knowledge to make. So, Katja is not filling that role.

    • Dan P

      I like these observation style posts. They’re useful in furthering my own understanding of my map, and often times give me the perspective and the tools to go further than I was. Shoulders of giants, and all that. We don’t always have a good idea of what direction to actually focus on analytically, and identifying the problem is sometimes the hardest part. If someone took the time to turn this into a psychological research experiment, or perhaps some statistical analysis, it might be worthwhile. But don’t disparage the identification phase just because it hasn’t provided a neat solution.

    • VV

       I agree. Grace’s contributions to this blog started out as fairly interesting, but recently they seem to have devolved into little more than self-centered musings.

    • robertwiblin

      It’s funny you say that, because I have been worrying that I write too many conclusions which I don’t have time to fully substantiate, and thinking of posting more open questions like Katja! I think this observation isn’t so strong, but Katja’s ‘open question’ posts have been some of my favourite blog posts over the last few years.

      I appreciate the feedback from commenters here and try to take it on board. At the same time, I think readers should recognise that any group blog involves a range of styles. Anyone other potential contributors are going to differ from Robin, particularly in depth of experience blogging. If you find that you like some authors but not others, then nothing requires that you read every post.

      It may seem that there’s a trade-off from a reader’s point of view but there isn’t; fewer posts from others would not result in more posts from Robin. He has rationally decided to prioritise another higher-impact project just now.

      • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ srdiamond

        If you find that you like some authors but not others, then nothing requires that you read every post.

        Nor every Comment.

    • Arnav Kacker

      The rational process, its examination,
      inspection, tuning and optimization is one of the most elementary foundations
      of analyses of problems, situations and potential solutions. While
      introspection on Katja’s part may not focus on the exact area of rationale that:

      a. you find
      interesting to inspect
      b. you have
      experienced conflicting proclivities with

      you surely do admit
      to the merits of having a lucid thought process, yes?

      Clearly, this blog
      recognizes not just the merits, but also the crucial necessity of posts like
      these from Katja which might expose us to biases that we might, through periods
      of rational misconduct, developed a blind-spot for. It states so explicitly
      when it describes itself as such:

      ‘Overcoming Bias began in November ’06 as a group blog on the general theme
      of how to move our beliefs closer to reality, in the face of our natural biases
      such as overconfidence and wishful thinking, and our bias to believe we have
      corrected for such biases, when we have done no such thing.’

      What made you love the blog may have been your selection of posts that you sieved through the collective output available here or merely the fortunate coincidence of your content-consumption and interest but the posts are thematically consistent with what the blog sets out to achieve and I think it’d be a lesser blog in their absence.

      Thinking about thoughts is just so much meta-frickin’-fun!

  • Guest

    Cool story. Seemingly pointless, but cool.

  • http://profiles.google.com/philoscase R S

    Well, on the left this is certainly the case with abortion. There are many instinctively pro-life liberals, progressives, and even socialists who refrain from even admitting to themselves this belief on account of this sort of fear-based cognitive motivation.

    On the right, this has pertained with religious issues and matters of traditional morality. But more interestingly, it is the case that social conservatives may express economic conservative and libertarian beliefs and convince themselves of their value on account of the fear motivated cognition you describe.

  • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ srdiamond

    I feared that my reasoning was fallible, and I was terrified that I would come to believe not-X even though X was the truth. Then the truth would come out, or more evidence at least (and obviously the truth would be X), then all the good people who knew X would consider me evil, which was equivalent to being evil.

    Not typical; sounds like you had an “insecure childhood.”

    I admire your courage in posting this.

  • Evan

    Perhaps this is my own bias speaking, but this seems precisely the kind of thinking that organized religion is designed to foster. “believe X or you are evil” “never doubt X or you are evil” seems like a common teaching in both christian and islamic religions (im less knowledgeable of others to comment).

    I’m curious if religion is indeed what sparked this topic. Do you rationalize other belief X’s beyond religion?

    • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ srdiamond

      this seems precisely the kind of thinking that organized religion is designed to foster

      What Haidt calls the “Sacredness” moral foundation will spark this thinking, without organized religion. Most secular moralists sacralize morality. ( http://tinyurl.com/cxjqxo9 ) 

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  • Nathan Phillips

    Haha, something so satisfying about reading these pure logic posts.

    Re the “threads about yourself” comments – I actually find them more compelling. Applying logic to internal experience, thought processes, motivation, emotion, etc is something I’d definitely like to see more of, rather than something I’d like to move on from.