If you’ve had any political discussions this year, you’ve likely had the following experience:

While talking to someone entrenched in a political position, you point out facts showing the other person isn’t making any sense. They’re facts which seem impossible to argue with. And, to your absolute shock, you discover they’ve found some weird way of explaining away the evidence you’ve presented.

Why can’t people just see reason? Why do you paint a totally logical, rational argument to have it just irrationally thrown away?

Motivated Reasoning

Psychology has long recognized a phenomenon called, “motivated reasoning.” Basically, it means that if you already strongly believe in a thing, you’ll analyze evidence contradicting that thing very differently than how you would if you didn’t have the strong belief.

For example, if you adamantly buy into a conservative worldview, you’ll strongly question evidence supporting a liberal position. You won’t look at it with an open-mind. Rather, you’ll try and find a way to explain it away. In contrast if you have a very liberal position you’ll do the same thing regarding evidence supporting a conservative position.

If evidence supports your viewpoint, you won’t get too critical with it. Instead, you’ll probably embrace it more quickly than you would with any other evidence.

Said another way, we don’t look at information with a critical mind when we’ve already decided what we believe. We look at it with an eye towards spinning it in favor of the thing we’ve already come to a conclusion about.

The Science

In 2004, researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology set out to study the brain regions involved in motivated reasoning. Motivated reasoning is different from “cold cognition” (or thoughts involving no vested emotional interest in a position).

Recall the 2004 United States presidential election was between George Bush and John Kerry. Subjects of this study were all firmly in support of one or the other.

Each subject read statements by their preferred candidate (Kerry or Bush). Then they read something that seemed to contradict the initial quote. Next they read a statement that seemed to redeem the candidate’s quote. The process was repeated with the other candidate.

Researchers monitored subjects with an fMRI. This offered insight into what parts of the brain were being activated while they read each of the statements.

It turned out that if subjects saw statements that contradicted their positions, there was activation of the lateral and medial orbital prefrontal cortex, the anterior cingulate cortex, the insula, posterior cingulate and contiguous precuneus, and parietal cortex. Cold cognitions activate the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex.

Said differently, people were using completely different parts of their brains if they had already made a decision.

You can read the full article here.

The Lesson

We often start throwing facts at someone when they say something we don’t like. Then we get frustrated when they don’t agree with us. Since we know they’re using a totally different area of their brains to analyze things (as are we) arguing about facts is frequently a waste of time. So is getting angry about it.

Instead, when you find yourself arguing with someone, first ask whether or not you need to argue at all. Is the argument you’re engaged in going to accomplish something related to your goals? If not, there’s absolutely no reason to argue.

If the issue is important, then consider another approach. Listen for a few minutes and determine why the other person believes as they do. Once you’ve done that, you can try and speak to the underlying motives, and not the factual information on the surface of the discussion.

I describe this phenomenon in a lot more detail in my book, Emotional Embuffination. (It’s the topic of Chapter 10). If you’d like to learn more, check it out.