Saturday, October 1, 2011

Motivated Reasoning

One of my students (Thanks Kate!) found this article.  They are arguing for a thesis quite consistent with what I've been pressing in several recent posts:  


Boudry, Maarten and Johan Braeckman.  "How Convenient!  The Epistemic Rationale of Self-Validating Beliefs Systems.  forthcoming in Philosophical Psychology.  



One passage is particularly relevant to the resurrection discussions I've been in recently:  

According to cognitive dissonance theory (Festinger, Schachter, & Riecken, 1964; Aronson, 1992; Tavris & Aronson, 2008), when people are presented with new evidence that conflicts with their previously held beliefs, this results in a form of cognitive tension called “dissonance”. Importantly, the strength of this uncomfortable tension depends on the degree to which people have invested in their beliefs, for example by way of public commitment, or by the time and effort spent acting in accordance with these beliefs (Batson, 1975). If the psychological investment in a belief is high, people are more motivated to reduce dissonance by rationalizing away disconfirming data. In the refined version of dissonance theory, dissonance arises not so much because of two conflicting cognitions, but because adverse evidence conflicts with one’s self-esteem as a competent and reasonable person[1]. This accords with our earlier observation that, when people explain away unwelcome evidence, they do so in a way that allows them to uphold an illusion of objectivity. For example, if a psychic has publicly professed his powers and risks losing his credibility, he is unlikely to be put off his balance by blatant failure. Or if a believer has spent a substantial amount of time and money on astrology consults, typically no amount of rational argumentation and debunking efforts will make him renounce his beliefs. As Nicholas Humphrey noted: “psychic phenomena can, it seems, survive almost any amount of subsequent disgrace” (Humphrey, 1996, p. 150). By contrast, if the psychological stakes are low, as in the everyday situations we mentioned above, the motivation for belief perseverance will be greatly reduced. Consider another example related to paranormal beliefs: suppose that Anna and Paul both start to suspect that they have psychic powers, but their level of confidence is not very high. While Paul hastens to tell his friends that he may be psychic and even performs some psychic readings, Anna decides to conduct an experiment on herself at an early point, when her beliefs are still privately held. All other things being equal, it is much more likely that Anna will abandon her beliefs silently when she discovers that they do not pan out (Humphrey, 1996, p. 105), while Paul will rationalize his failures because he has already made a public commitment. Thus, we would predict that people with an inquisitive and cautious mindset are more likely to put their hunches to the test early on, and are less likely to be sucked into commitment to wrong beliefs like these. By contrast, people who rush to conclusions and start spreading the news right away will more often find themselves in a situation where they obstinately refuse to abandon a false belief.[2]
A classic illustration of cognitive dissonance can be found in the landmark study by Leon Festinger and his colleagues, who infiltrated a doomsday cult and observed the behavior of the followers when the prophesized end of the world failed to come true(Festinger, et al., 1964). The followers who had resigned from their jobs, given away their material belongings and were present at the arranged place and time with full conviction in their imminent salvation, became even more ardent believers after the prophecy failed, and started to proselytize even more actively for the cult. However, those for whom the cognitive stakes were lower (e.g. those who kept their belongings and stayed home in fearful expectation of what was supposedly to come), were more likely to abandon their beliefs afterwards.

16 comments:

krissthesexyatheist said...

I believe that if the average believing peep could study, even just a little bit, a few key terms then they would be on the road to Team Atheist: cognitive dissonance, logical fallacies (all of them) and motivated reasoning. Awesome as usual buddy,

KRiss

thedarkfalz said...

It seems this article could be particularly applicable to you given how you responded (or lack there of) to Randal Rauser's (powerful) critique of your pet argument against the resurrection,

Here: http://bit.ly/pCaj6q
Here: http://bit.ly/pGcm6b
Here: http://bit.ly/qemfvT
Here: http://bit.ly/nUesz0
Here: http://bit.ly/pKAAgF

I think it would be most beneficial to your argument to make a more serious response this time.

Matt DeStefano said...

thedark,

Did you read the comments? There was a pretty lengthy discussion there in which he did respond.

Matt McCormick said...

There are no conditions, hypothetical or real, under which those dedicated to apologetics will concede that their views are irrational. So engaging with their rationalizations can only result in their claiming victory.

thedarkfalz said...

@DeStefano
Yes, I did read the comments. That is exactly what I mean by a lack of a serious response. McCormick revealed, as the atheistic apologist that he is, that there are no conditions, hypothetical or real, under which he will concede that his views are irrational.

@McCormick
And you are an atheistic apologist guilty of the very things you accuse others of. It's hard to imagine how you don't see how Rauser completely undermined your pet argument.

Some Guy said...

I find these studies fascinating for many of the same reasons you do. However, I am trying to get a handle on the explanatory power and scope of these studies with respect to religious beliefs. Now, it seems fairly clear that these studies can readily account for some of the more obvious instances of religious belief, but I wonder how they relate to reflective religious belief. For example, Richard Swinburne seems to be a paragon of reflective religious belief. My opinion on this is that Swinburne has a very advanced education compared to most adherents of the various religious belief systems, but various motivational and cognitive biases have been with Swinburne throughout much, if not all of his academic career, and along his academic career, his life has followed a kind of "trajectory of reflective religious belief formation" that has resulted in a fairly sophisticated web of beliefs and justifications such that much of his motivational and cognitive biases are buried deep compared to a non-reflective believer. In other words, these studies are uncovering biases that are inherent in all people who have religious belief, but in the case of some reflective religious belief (i.e. Richard Swinburne), these motivational and cognitive biases are buried pretty deep. So, someone like Swinburne is rational given his background beliefs, heuristics, priors, etc., and he is capable of rationally responding to objections to his view, but ultimately, he has several unconscious motivational and cognitive biases inextricably entangled around his reasoning and decision procedures that he may or may not be culpable for? What do you think about the things I have said?
Thanks

A Nihilist said...

I love your blog and I remember learning about cognitive dissonance in psychology and relating it to religion.

pensiveblake said...

Presumably this runs both ways. E.g., Matt, how invested do you feel you are in your position? "the strength of this uncomfortable tension depends on the degree to which people have invested in their beliefs, for example by way of public commitment, or by the time and effort spent acting in accordance with these beliefs"

Also, I'm also not quiet sure yet how it relates to the resurrection. Presumably you mean the case for Jesus' resurrection, wherein scholars grant that the apostles didn't simply (somehow) hold that God had vindicated Jesus in an obscure way, but that they genuinely believed they saw, with their eyes, Jesus appearing to them alive from the dead.
Relevant articles would sooner be ones pertaining to group hallucinatory experiences brought on by said cognitive dissonance. Though I'm skeptical that group hallucinations occur, if they do, the hypothesized criteria don't seem to be met in the apostles case. Many think it is very difficult to explain the apostle's experience naturally.

Matt DeStefano said...

"The followers who had resigned from their jobs, given away their material belongings and were present at the arranged place and time with full conviction in their imminent salvation, became even more ardent believers after the prophecy failed, and started to proselytize even more actively for the cult. However, those for whom the cognitive stakes were lower (e.g. those who kept their belongings and stayed home in fearful expectation of what was supposedly to come), were more likely to abandon their beliefs afterwards."

Pensive, you can't see how that can possibly relate to the resurrection?

Mellodee said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
pensiveblake said...

Matt DeStefano, no, I don't see how that is at all relevant. Recall, scholars of every stripe say "that [the apostles] genuinely believed they saw, with their eyes, Jesus appearing to them alive from the dead."
The atheist is called to give an explanation of this event. What would give them such a visual experience? Most atheist historical Jesus scholars think they hallucinated. So I recommended Matt McCormick to try and tie this in to the association between dissonance and hallucinations. Otherwise, dissonance simpliciter is just irrelevant to the datum Christians call atheists to explain.

Matt McCormick said...

There are a lot of subtle issues here. First, I'm not at all clear about what most scholars say. I have found that apologists and evangelicals are not reliable sources of information about that. Furthermore, these claims need to be distinguished: "There is evidence that there was a religious movement of people who believed X that dates 30-150 years after the alleged events of X," from "there were people who believed they saw X." There is a great deal of work that needs to be done to infer the latter from the former. In my experience, too many folks gloss over that gap as if it is easy or obvious. Furthermore, attesting to what people believe, if we are just talking about the relevant academic experts to cite here, is perhaps more the province of philosophers and epistemologists (like myself), especially about supernatural or metaphysical matters, or psychologists, and less the province of historians or Bible scholars. Belief is a rich and complicated phenomena, about which I am one of the experts to be honest, and many of the important subtleties about what it is aren't even on the radar of the typical Bible scholar, apologist, or highly motivated believing historian. My book goes into all of these matters at length. Coming out in the summer.

pensiveblake said...

Gary Habermas (only now a Christian, because of this argument) writes "On the state of Resurrection studies today, I recently completed an overview of more than 1,400 sources on the resurrection of Jesus published since 1975. I studied and cataloged about 650 of these texts in English, German, and French. Some of the results of this study are certainly intriguing. For example, perhaps no fact is more widely recognized than that early Christian believers had real experiences that they thought were appearances of the risen Jesus. A critic may claim that what they saw were hallucinations or visions, but he does not deny that they actually experienced something."
Also, it's important to note that the belief that "there were people who believed they saw x" is not based on the existence of people who believed x between 30-150 years after (AD 60-190). Consider 1 Cor., which non-Christian scholars date to AD 53-55 (and it's not Paul's earliest letter). In fact, here in 1 Cor, we see all sorts of information with is symptomatic of a thriving community and movement which has been existence long prior AD 53-55. Moreover, in 1 Cor 15:3-5, Paul writes "For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve." Paul here is appealing their pre-existing belief in the appearances to make his argument, a belief which obviously predates this letter. In fact, scholars know for a number of reasons that Paul is here quoting a creedal confession[1] that dates to AD 30-35, according to virtually all atheist scholars (maybe less than 5% put it between AD 35-40).[2]
[1]Dale Allison, who denies resurrection, writes that "[1 Cor 15] incorporates, as almost universally recognized, a pre-Pauline formula." Reginald Fuller, who (in the Bultmannian school) similarly denies the resurrection, writes "It is almost universally agreed today that Paul is here citing tradition." cf. The Oxford Companion to the Bible, p. 647.
[2] cf. The Oxford Companion to the Bible (ultra liberal), p. 647, where we read "The earliest record of these appearances is to be found in 1 Corinthians 15:3-7, a tradition that Paul "received" after his apostolic call, certainly not later than his visit to Jerusalem in 35 CE, when he saw Cephas (Peter) and James (Gal. 1:18-19), who, like him, were recipients of appearances." I have a mountain of citations if you want them.

pensiveblake said...

I was a little confused about your final point. It shouldn't take an epistemologist to determine whether a subject S genuinely believes p (that's not really what epistemologists study, at least not with any special focus). I might be misunderstanding you. Paula Fredricksen (Jewish Prof., Historian of Early Christianity) captures the ubiquitous sentiment of her peers when she writes "I know in their own terms what they saw was the raised Jesus. That's what they say, and then all the historic evidence we have afterwards attests to their conviction that that's what they saw. I'm not saying that they really did see the raised Jesus. I wasn't there. I don't know what they saw. But I do know as a historian that they must have seen something."

SM said...

Hi, I'd love to recommend to you a great atheistic/skeptical podcast called Cognitive Dissonance. The show can be heard at their site http://dissonancepod.com and is also available on iTunes and Stitcher. It is an irreverent show produced by a couple of intelligent Chicago guys, who are also HILARIOUS.

mikmik said...

I think Occam's Razor is a great indicator of the relative validity in Atheist vs, Apologist positions, and the general rigorousness of the arguments used by people on either side can be a sure sign of their overall rationality.
Saying that people on both sides have emotional motivations for being correct, as well as economic ones, is a false comparison, for it implies that is the underlying reason for continuing to defend their respective positions is mostly an exercise in maintaining the status quo.
It seeks to ignore that both atheists and apologist's can have more or less rationality in their arguments, and is actually an appeal to emotion fallacy that seeks to undermine the ability to genuinely recognize truthful argument.

pensiveblake, I would like to see some citations here for your claim: "Matt DeStefano, no, I don't see how that is at all relevant. Recall, scholars of every stripe say "that [the apostles] genuinely believed they saw, with their eyes, Jesus appearing to them alive from the dead.""
Most 'schollars' I've read says this is hearsay, and if true, offer a type of mass hysteria, not hallucination, as an explanation. Mass hysteria is a well explored phenomenon of actual occurrence.