What Motivates Reasoning? A Theory of Goal‐Dependent Political Evaluation

The forthcoming article “What Motivates Reasoning? A Theory of Goal‐Dependent Political Evaluation” by Eric Groenendyk and Yanna Krupnikov is summarized by the author(s) below. 

Political science has long struggled with the question of motivation.  In the economic sphere, sound decisions pay off, so individuals have a clear incentive for accuracy. But, within the political sphere, decision-making occurs collectively, undermining democratic citizens motivation to devote effort to accurate evaluation (Downs 1957). To address this problem, scholars often look to motivated reasoning theory (Kunda 1990), but what we really need is a theory of what motivates reasoning in politics.   

We theorize that information processing is motivated by the goals salient in a given context.  What goals, then, are salient in the context of politics?  We argue that, if politics feels conflictual, like debate, the goal will be to “win” by counterargue against the opposition in defense of one’s own position. But, if politics feels cooperative, like deliberation, the goal will be to find consensus through open-minded discussion.   

We test our theory through three experiments. In the first experiment participants were each asked to describe what came to mind when they thought of a randomly assigned treatment word: politics, disagreement, debate, deliberation, democracy, or sports.  We find that, like disagreement and debate, and unlike deliberation and democracy, people associate politics with conflict and not consensus.  

While it may be common for people to defend their prior opinions in the context of politics, our theory suggests this motivation is not inherent to politics, but rather conditioned on this association between politics and conflict. Our second experiment tested this hypothesis by manipulating whether policy statements were labeled as potentially disagreeable information“political” information, or simply “additional” information.  In the first two conditions, study participants argued against information that conflicted with their prior attitudes.  But, absent an expectation of conflict, participants in the third condition displayed no such effort.    

Given the lack of incentive to reach accurate evaluations in the political sphere, we designed our third experiment to test whether it is possible to motivate open-minded reasoning as an end unto itself, not simply as a means to achieve accuracy.  In our treatment group, participants were told about a (fictitious) study linking open-mindedness with various measures of life success, thereby providing a psychological incentive to want to believe they were open-minded.  The control group received no such information. Compared to the control group, participants told of the link between open-mindedness and life success devoted more effort to open-minded evaluation of counter-attitudinal information.  At the same time, however, theshowed no increase in their ability to discern between strong and weak arguments, suggesting their goal was open-mindednessnot accuracy.      

These findings suggest that, while accuracy-motivated reasoning may not be common in politics, directional motivations need not lead people to reject counter-attitudinal information.  Rather, there is an important role for context: how people respond to new information depends on what they imagine politics to be.    

Works Cited
Downs, Anthony. (1957)An Economic Theory of Democracy. New York: Harper Row.
KundaZiva. (1990). “The case for motivated reasoning.” Psychological Bulletin 108 (3):480-98. 

About the Author(s): Eric Groenendyk is an Associate Professor at University of Memphis and Yanna Krupnikov is an Associate Professor at Stony Brook University. Their research “What Motivates Reasoning? A Theory of Goal‐Dependent Political Evaluation” is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science. 

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The American Journal of Political Science (AJPS) is the flagship journal of the Midwest Political Science Association and is published by Wiley.