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Thursday, April 6, 2023

People recognize and condone their own morally motivated reasoning

Cusimano, C., & Lombrozo, T. (2023).
Cognition, 234, 105379.


People often engage in biased reasoning, favoring some beliefs over others even when the result is a departure from impartial or evidence-based reasoning. Psychologists have long assumed that people are unaware of these biases and operate under an “illusion of objectivity.” We identify an important domain of life in which people harbor little illusion about their biases – when they are biased for moral reasons. For instance, people endorse and feel justified believing morally desirable propositions even when they think they lack evidence for them (Study 1a/1b). Moreover, when people engage in morally desirable motivated reasoning, they recognize the influence of moral biases on their judgment, but nevertheless evaluate their reasoning as ideal (Studies 2–4). These findings overturn longstanding assumptions about motivated reasoning and identify a boundary condition on Naïve Realism and the Bias Blind Spot. People's tendency to be aware and proud of their biases provides both new opportunities, and new challenges, for resolving ideological conflict and improving reasoning.


• Dominant theories assume people form beliefs only under an illusion of objectivity.

• We document a boundary condition on this illusion: morally desirable biases.

• People endorse beliefs they regard as evidentially weak but morally desirable.

• People realize when they have just engaged in morally motivated reasoning.

• Accurate self-attributions of moral bias fully attenuate the ‘bias blind spot’.

From the General discussion

Our beliefs about our beliefs – including whether they are biased or justified – play a crucial role in guiding inquiry, shaping belief revision, and navigating disagreement. One line of research suggests that these judgments are almost universally characterized by an illusion of objectivity such that people consciously reason with the goal of being objective and basing their beliefs on evidence, and because of this, people nearly always assume that their current beliefs meet those standards. Another line of work suggests that people sometimes think that values legitimately bear on whether someone is justified to hold a belief (Cusimano & Lombrozo, 2021b). These findings raise the possibility, consistent with some prior theoretical proposals (Cusimano & Lombrozo, 2021a; Tetlock, 2002), that people will knowingly violate norms of impartiality, or knowingly maintain beliefs that lack evidential support, when doing so advances what they consider to be morally laudable goals. Two predictions follow. First, people should evaluate their beliefs in part based on their perceived moral value. And second, in situations in which people engage in morally motivated reasoning, they should recognize that they have done so and should evaluate their morally motivated reasoning as appropriate. We document support for these predictions across four studies (Table 1).


A great deal of work has assumed that people treat objectivity and evidence-based reasoning as cardinal norms governing their belief formation. This assumption has grown increasingly tenuous in light of recent work highlighting the importance of moral concerns in almost all facets of life. Consistent with this recent work, we find evidence that people’s evaluations of the moral quality of a proposition predict their subjective confidence that it is true, their likelihood of claiming that they believe it and know it, and the extent to which they take their belief to be justified. Moreover, people exhibit metacognitive awareness of this fact and approve of morality’s influence on their reasoning. People often want to be right, but they also want to be good – and they know it.