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24.1.17

On Anti-Trump Motivated Reasoning

OK. We've all had a good laugh/cry over Conway and Spicer's recent performances. But here's the thing. You detest Trump, right? Me too -- it seems like a perfectly reasonable reaction to the volcano of awfulness that has been spewing from our new president and those he surrounds himself with. But you have to remember that this makes you -- and me -- very vulnerable to what psychologists call motivated reasoning. Motivated reasoning is when you believe what you want to be true, and what conforms to your preexisting worldview, instead of what the evidence shows. The more you dislike Trump, the more easily you will believe any bad thing about him that comes along. And you will be especially inclined to believe it if it nicely fits one of the specific storylines you have about why Trump is terrible (he's a racist, he's incompetent, he's a Russian puppet, etc).

Motivated reasoning isn't a conservative thing or a liberal thing, it's a human thing. It's just the way our brains work. And patting yourself on the back about how you're rational and concerned about the truth, unlike all those other people who use motivated reasoning, will only make you *more* vulnerable to motivated reasoning. Recognizing that you're vulnerable to motivated reasoning does not mean that Trump isn't actually terrible. But remember that there are lots of people out there who stand to make a buck off of your motivated reasoning. The get clicks, and line their pockets with ad dollars, if they can feed you things that you want to believe.

What you -- and I -- need to do is to remind ourselves to be careful and humble about our psychological biases. If something seems outrageous, carefully check that it's true. If something perfectly illustrates exactly what's wrong with Trump, carefully check that it's true. Do this even if you don't intend to spread the information around -- headlines you've skimmed have a way of worming their way into your memory. Then, if it all checks out, go ahead and share it. I promise you, Trump will do enough actual awful things that you won't need the fake garbage.

Four years is a long time, and you're going to mess up. I guarantee I'll end up sharing something outrageous and fake over the course of the Trump presidency. Hopefully someone else will quickly point out your (and my) mistake. And when that happens, here's what to do: thank the person for the correction. Then breathe a sigh of relief that the item was false. (After all, you don't want Trump to do terrible stuff, right? You're not so hungry for ammuntion to use against him and to justify your worldview that you are hoping he does awful stuff, are you?) Then do what you can to undo the spread of bad information.

What you shouldn't do is say something like "well, the fact that it was so believable really shows how bad Trump is!" It doesn't show that at all. The fact that it was believable shows how bad *you think* Trump is. And maybe he is that bad. (I mean, he is. He's awful.) I get the desire to save face, and to look at the big picture. But your propensity to fall for motivated reasoning doesn't prove his actual badness. Your gullibility is not evidence of anything. Apologize, correct, and put your focus on the actual bad stuff.

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