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Wednesday, November 22, 2023

The case for partisan motivated reasoning

Williams, D.
Synthese 202, 89 (2023).


A large body of research in political science claims that the way in which democratic citizens think about politics is motivationally biased by partisanship. Numerous critics argue that the evidence for this claim is better explained by theories in which party allegiances influence political cognition without motivating citizens to embrace biased beliefs. This article has three aims. First, I clarify this criticism, explain why common responses to it are unsuccessful, and argue that to make progress on this debate we need a more developed theory of the connections between group attachments and motivated reasoning. Second, I develop such a theory. Drawing on research on coalitional psychology and the social functions of beliefs, I argue that partisanship unconsciously biases cognition by generating motivations to advocate for party interests, which transform individuals into partisan press secretaries. Finally, I argue that this theory offers a superior explanation of a wide range of relevant findings than purely non-motivational theories of political cognition.

My summary:

Partisan motivated reasoning is the tendency for people to seek out and interpret information in a way that confirms their existing political beliefs. This is a complex phenomenon, but Williams argues that it can be explained by the combination of two factors:

  1. Group attachments: People are strongly motivated to defend and promote the interests of their social groups, including their political parties.
  2. Motivated cognition: People are motivated to believe things that are true, but they are also motivated to believe things that are consistent with their values and goals.
Williams argues that partisan motivated reasoning is a natural and predictable consequence of these two factors. When people are motivated to defend and promote their political party, they will be motivated to seek out and interpret information in a way that confirms their existing beliefs. They will also be motivated to downplay or ignore information that is inconsistent with their beliefs.

Williams provides a number of pieces of evidence to support his argument, including studies that show that people are more likely to believe information that is consistent with their political beliefs, even when that information is false. He also shows that people are more likely to seek out and consume information from sources that they agree with politically.

Williams concludes by arguing that partisan motivated reasoning is a serious problem for democracy. It can lead to people making decisions that are not in their own best interests, and it can make it difficult for people to have productive conversations about political issues.