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Ideology, Motivated Reasoning, and Cognitive Reflection: An Experimental Study


Dan M. Kahan


Yale University - Law School; Harvard University - Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics

November 29, 2012

Judgment and Decision Making, 8, 407-24 (2013)
Cultural Cognition Lab Working Paper No. 107
Yale Law School, Public Law Research Paper No. 272

Abstract:     
Social psychologists have identified various plausible sources of ideological polarization over climate change, gun violence, national security, and like societal risks. This paper describes a study of three of them: the predominance of heuristic-driven information processing by members of the public; ideologically motivated cognition; and personality-trait correlates of political conservativism. The results of the study suggest reason to doubt two common surmises about how these dynamics interact. First, the study presents both observational and experimental data inconsistent with the hypothesis that political conservatism is distinctively associated with closed-mindedness: conservatives did no better or worse than liberals on an objective measure of cognitive reflection; and more importantly, both demonstrated the same unconscious tendency to fit assessments of empirical evidence to their ideological predispositions. Second, the study suggests that this form of bias is not a consequence of overreliance on heuristic or intuitive forms of reasoning; on the contrary, subjects who scored highest in cognitive reflection were the most likely to display ideologically motivated cognition. These findings corroborated the hypotheses of a third theory, which identifies motivated cognition as a form of information processing that rationally promotes individuals’ interests in forming and maintaining beliefs that signify their loyalty to important affinity groups. The paper discusses the normative significance of these findings, including the need to develop science communication strategies that shield policy-relevant facts from the influences that turn them into divisive symbols of identity.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 61

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Date posted: November 30, 2012 ; Last revised: July 30, 2013

Suggested Citation

Kahan, Dan M., Ideology, Motivated Reasoning, and Cognitive Reflection: An Experimental Study (November 29, 2012). Judgment and Decision Making, 8, 407-24 (2013); Cultural Cognition Lab Working Paper No. 107; Yale Law School, Public Law Research Paper No. 272. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2182588 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2182588

Contact Information

Dan M. Kahan (Contact Author)
Yale University - Law School ( email )
P.O. Box 208215
New Haven, CT 06520-8215
United States
HOME PAGE: http://www.culturalcognition.net/kahan
Harvard University - Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics ( email )
124 Mount Auburn Street
Suite 520N
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States

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