Tuesday, 13 February 2018

Rationalization: Why your intelligence, vigilance and expertise probably don't protect you

Today's post is by Jonathan Ellis, Associate Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Center for Public Philosophy at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and Eric Schwitzgebel, Professor of Philosophy at the University of California, Riverside. This is the first in a two-part contribution on their paper "Rationalization in Moral and Philosophical thought" in Moral Inferences, eds. J. F. Bonnefon and B. Trémolière, (Psychology Press, 2017).

We’ve all been there. You’re arguing with someone – about politics, or a policy at work, or about whose turn it is to do the dishes – and they keep finding all kinds of self-serving justifications for their view. When one of their arguments is defeated, rather than rethinking their position they just leap to another argument, then maybe another. They’re rationalizing –coming up with convenient defenses for what they want to believe, rather than responding even-handedly to the points you're making. You try to point it out, but they deny it, and dig in more.

More formally, in recent work we have defined rationalization as what occurs when a person favors a particular view as a result of some factor (such as self-interest) that is of little justificatory epistemic relevance, and then engages in a biased search for and evaluation of justifications that would seem to support that favored view.

You, of course, never rationalize in this way! Or, rather, it doesn’t usually feel like you do. Stepping back, you’ll probably admit you do it sometimes. But maybe less than average? After all, you’re a philosopher, a psychologist, an expert in reasoning – or at least someone who reads blog posts about philosophy, psychology, and reasoning. You're especially committed to the promotion of critical thinking and fair-minded reasoning. You know about all sorts of common fallacies, and especially rationalization, and are on guard for them in your own thinking. Don't these facts about you make you less susceptible to rationalization than people with less academic intelligence, vigilance, and expertise?

We argue that no. You’re probably just as susceptible to post-hoc rationalization, maybe even more, than the rest of the population, though the ways it manifests in your reasoning may be different. Vigilance, academic intelligence, and disciplinary expertise are not overall protective against rationalization. In some cases, they might even enhance one’s tendency to rationalize, or make rationalizations more severe when they occur.

While some biases are less prevalent among those who score high on standard measures of academic intelligence, others appear to be no less frequent or powerful. Stanovich, West and Toplak (2013), reviewing several studies, find that the degree of myside bias is largely independent of measures of intelligence and cognitive ability. Dan Kahan finds that on several measures people who use more “System 2” type explicit reasoning show higher rates of motivated cognition rather than lower rates (2011, 2013, Kahan et al 2011). Thinkers who are more knowledgeable have more facts to choose from when constructing a line of motivated reasoning (Taber and Lodge 2006; Braman 2009). 

Nor does disciplinary expertise appear to be protective. For instance, Schwitzgebel and Cushman (2012, 2015) presented moral dilemma scenarios to professional philosophers and comparison groups of non-philosophers, followed by the opportunity to endorse or reject various moral principles. Professional philosophers were just as prone to irrational order effects and framing effects as were the other groups, and were also at least as likely to “rationalize” their manipulated scenario judgments by appealing to principles post-hoc in a way that would render those manipulated judgments rational.

Furthermore, since the mechanisms responsible for rationalization are largely non-conscious, vigilant introspection is not liable to reveal to the introspector that rationalization has occured. This may be one reason for the “bias blind spot”: People tend to regard themselves as less biased than others, sometimes even exhibiting more bias by objective measures the less biased they believe themselves to be (Pronin, Gilovich and Ross 2004; Uhlmann and Cohen 2005). Indeed, efforts to reduce bias and be vigilant can amplify bias. You examine your reasoning for bias, find no bias because of your bias blind spot, and then inflate your confidence that your reasoning is not biased: “I really am being completely objective and reasonable!” (as suggested in Erhlinger, Gilovich and Ross 2005). People with high estimates of their objectivity might also be less likely to take protective measures against bias (Scopeletti et al 2015).

Partisan reasoning can be invisible to vigilant introspection for another reason: it need not occur in one fell swoop, at a sole moment or a particular inference. Rather, it can be the result of a series or network of “micro-instances” of motivated reasoning (Ellis, manuscript). Celebrated cases of motivated reasoning typically involve a person whose evidence clearly points to one thing (that it’s their turn, not yours, to do the dishes) but who believes the very opposite (that it’s your turn). But motives can have much subtler consequences.

Many judgments admit of degrees, and motives can have impacts of small degree. They can affect the likelihood you assign to an outcome, or the confidence you place in a belief, or the reliability you attribute to a source of information, or the threshold for cognitive action (e.g., what would trigger your pursuit of an objection). They can affect these things in large or very small ways.

Such micro-instances (you might call it motivated reasoning lite) can have significant amplificatory effects. This can happen over time, in a linear fashion. Or it can happen synchronically, spread over lots of assumptions, presuppositions, and dispositions. Or both. If introspection doesn't reveal motivated reasoning that happens in one fell swoop, micro-instances are liable to be even more elusive.

This is another reason for the sobering fact that well-meaning epistemic vigilance cannot be trusted to preempt or detect rationalization. Indeed, people who care most about reasoning, or who have a high “need for cognition”, or who attend to their cognitions most responsibly, may be the most impacted of all. Their learned ability to avoid the more obvious types of reasoning errors may naturally come with cognitive tools that enable more sophisticated, but still unnoticed, rationalization.

Coming next week: Why Moral and Philosophical Disagreements Are Especially Fertile Grounds for Rationalization.


  1. So what's the solution? We seem to be entering an era where even the most outrageous nutters think that they are right.
    But back to some not outrageous nutters. Where I work at a university, we deliver units, and changes that have happened over the last couple of years tell us (or rather student opinion tells us) that we aren't doing as well as we used to. And I believe I know, in my heart of hearts, that the reason is simply that our collective hearts aren't into it as much. But maybe thats not it. Maybe I just don't like the changes, and I'm confusing my dislike of the change, and hence my disheartened state, with other more objective factors.

    So how do I know? Since only one path has been taken, what would happen on the other path is only surmise.

  2. " We seem to be entering an era where even the most outrageous nutters think that they are right. "

    I just wanted to point out that this has always been true, and so that this is a perennial problem and not one particular to our age. The internet just amplifies their voices.

  3. Yes, agreed. The internet also acts as a meeting place, not only where people with strange views meet when they otherwise wouldn't have, but where they can justify each others crazy beliefs.

  4. I presume that teaching metacognition (self-awareness) and practicing it can help reduce rationalization biases. Some people seem to be able to do that, e.g., Philip Tetlock's superforecasters. Dan Khaneman apparently felt the same way and suggested mandatory public school education in cognitive and social science as some for of a defense against the dark arts type program. That makes sense to me.

    Who, if anyone, teaches this online in a online course (a MOOC)? Is there such a course at edX, Coursera, or wherever? If there is no such course, that would be a great opportunity to fill what strikes me as a hyper-critical gap in public access to critical knowledge.

    Why call it critical knowledge? IMO, because lack of self-awareness about the frailty of human cognition represents one of the top two or three threats to long-term human well-being and survival. Personally, I rate it the #1 threat.

  5. I'm going to venture to guess that the "solution" to this is found in interacting with other people who want to eliminate biases. Others can probably show us our blind spots if we're open to the idea of having them.

    -Matt H


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