Motivated Reasoning

I recently spoke on panel about ocean conservation at the San Francisco Aquarium, moderated by Environmental Defense Fund marine ecologist Dr. Rodney M. Fujita. Psychologists, activists, marketing experts, and even a futurologist gathered to discuss how to best educate and motivate the public about the dangers of everything from overfishing and pollution to climate change.

In this kind of discussion, things always start with awareness: how to we let people know what’s happening, what the risks are, and what needs to be done to prevent them? Logically, you need to be aware first—then comes caring. From caring, comes acting.

But a new report points to just how hard that first step is. Psychologists at Duke University and Waterloo University conducted a series of studies looking at how open people are to information about serious challenges, from the economy to the environment.

The bad news: people don’t want to know.

The more worried people were about an issue, the more they intentionally avoided information about it. The more unknowledgeable they felt about the issue, the more they avoided learning about it. And the more imminent the danger (e.g. an oil crisis), the more they avoided learning about it.

To be fair, though, people didn’t avoid all information: they selectively ignored negative information, but were open to positive information that might ease their worries.

Researchers also found that the more complex and serious an issue, the more people trusted the government to handle it. In U.S. politics, there is definitely a correlation between denying the serious of some problems (e.g. climate change) and advocating for less government regulation. Although these studies didn’t examine political affiliations, it would be interesting to see if a basic preference for less regulation or intervention would lead to even stronger resistance to learning negative information about a serious issue.

In the meantime, the results of these studies suggest that the relationship between awareness, caring, and action is not straightforward. People who care the most about an issue many want to avoid being aware of problems they don’t feel they can solve. And even those who trust policy solutions avoid learning more about an issue—making it less likely they’ll be able to advocate for policy change.

At the panel discussion on ocean conservation, I made a strong pitch for bypassing both awareness and caring whenever possible, by looking for structural, social, or economic solutions that make it easier or more rewarding to act in a way that reduces risk, or less convenient to act in ways that increase risk. This kind of “nudges” requires creativity, and can’t simply be heavy-handed regulation in disguise. The folks over at The Nudge Blog do a great job keeping track of various experiments with nudges, like a recent attempt to increase support for state parks.

For more information about the collaboration between psychologists, activists, marketers, and policy experts, check out this article about BlueMind, the group that sponsored our recent panel discussion.

Kelly McGonigal is a psychologist at Stanford University. Her latest book is The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It.

Study referenced:

Shepherd S, Kay, AC (2011). On the perpetuation of ignorance: System dependence, system justification, and the motivated avoidance of sociopolitical information. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Advance online publication.DOI: 10.1037/a0026272.