Motivated reasoning makes work annoying

Motivated Reasoning

Motivated reasoning — which is sometimes called motivated cognition — is a scientific term for how your unconscious motivations shape how you interpret information. Here’s a quick example. If you’re watching a basketball game and the ref calls a foul on your team, you go nuts. That was a bad call! If the exact same call happened on the opposing team, you’d be like “Fair call! Keep it moving! Get my boys to the line!” That’s essentially motivated reasoning. You’re shifting the narrative on the fly to fit what you want fit. As Discover Magazine notes, motivated reasoning is “the tendency of individuals to fit their processing of information to conclusions that suit some end or goal.”

This idea of motivated reasoning explains a lot about society currently. If you combine it with a somewhat-connected idea of “an algorithm bubble,” you can begin to see how divisive and partisan politics has become (at least in America). Motivated reasoning also explains some concepts around work — and not in a good way.

A quick video detailing motivated reasoning and decision-making

At its most basic level, work is just a series of decisions that need to be made and actions that need to be taken. So, if you understand how exactly motivated reasoning impacts decision-making, you can begin to understand the ties a bit more. For that, watch this video from TEDxPSU:

Alright, we’re good so far.

Motivated reasoning and your best day at work

Caroline Webb wrote a book called How To Have A Good DayA noble goal for all of us, yes? Now look, you can have great friends. You can have a great marriage. You can have amazing pets, a beautiful house, and Einstein-level kids. But if you live in a capitalism, you still need to work — and chances are you need to spend 8-12 hours/day there. So if work sucks, your days probably suck. We all should have a vested interest in work being better in order to make our lives better, but unfortunately most of the decision-makers at organizations could care less about that.

Here’s Webb talking to Wharton at UPenn, and she lays out three big themes for having a better time at work:

  • The two-system brain: One system handles what you do deliberately and consciously. The other handles everything else.
  • Discover-defend axis: You’re either defending against threats or you’re out there discovering new ideas and rewards.
  • Mind-Body Loop: You need to exercise and keep yourself healthy if you want to good and happy at work, essentially.

Of these three, let’s focus for a second on the discover-defend axis.

Motivated reasoning and the discover-defend axis

We’ve all worked for bosses where any new idea we had was instantly viewed as a threat. Since the human brain is designed (evolution, baby!) to predict threats (“Oh shit, that’s a lion!”), this is only logical. Most managers manage their teams from a place of squashing down threats. In a nutshell, this is why work sucks for a lot of people.

That would be the “defend” axis.

The “discover” axis is far less common. It’s tied to ideas around “the entrepreneurial spirit,” and it’s basically people going out and chasing new concepts. This is the opposite of “Bureaucracy Candy Land,” which is where most companies have their HQ. (Fun game: count how many times in a day you hear “We’ve always done it that way!” at your job.)

Here’s what Webb says:

If you are focusing on negative language, then it seems to trigger more of a defensive response. We perform better when we’re in discovery mode.

In short, then? Most managers tend to operate from ‘defensive’ mode. Better performance comes from ‘discovery’ mode. See the problem?

Motivated reasoning and fears of incompetence

There are three big pieces to understand about work in the most general sense:

Add up those three. Here’s what you get. Most workplaces become quantity-driven, task-focused places. In turn, people spend time on what they already understand because that makes them feel more (a) relevant and (b) competent. Because the priorities are often in the toilet, it doesn’t really matter what exactly you focus on. Just look busy and you’re good. Some people ride that concept all the way to the VP level.


Alright, now let’s turn back to ‘motivated reasoning’ once more.

Why does motivated reasoning make work suck, then?

Most of work is about protecting your perch and where you’re currently at. We often confuse “formal power” and “knowing what’s best,” and we often give senior leaders far too much leeway ethically. In a motivated reasoning situation, people are bending information to fit their narratives. When a boss does that, it’s soul-draining for their entire team. It’s all about swatting down good ideas, focusing on tasks, and making sure their boss is pleased with them. The team? That doesn’t mean crap. “I’m chasing my bonus, baby!”

When your unconscious motivations shape how you deal with information, that’s motivated reasoning. What are the unconscious motivations of most senior leaders you’ve worked with? Money? More power? More respect, even if forced? For the good ones, it’s team-building, career-development, etc. For most, though, it’s about them. It’s self. It’s about No. 1.

In those contexts, those motivations drive their information-processing. Your information-processing, in turn, drives your decision-making. Now factor in two new concepts:

So. Unconscious motivations. Poor decision-making. Lack of priorities. Silos everywhere. See how motivated reasoning is the first brick in The Bad Job Building? Yep.

What else would you add?

Ted Bauer

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