In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Motivated Reasoning

  • Introduction
  • Origins in Psychology
  • Emergence in Political Science
  • Skepticism, Debates, and Reviews

Political Science Motivated Reasoning
Thomas J. Leeper, Kevin J. Mullinix
  • LAST REVIEWED: 22 February 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 February 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0237


Motivated reasoning has become a central theoretical concept in academic discourse across the fields of psychology, political science, and mass communication. Further, it has also entered the popular lexicon as a label for the seemingly limitless power of partisanship and prior beliefs to color and distort perceptions of the political and social world. Since its emergence in the psychological literature in the mid- to late-20th century, motivated reasoning theory has been continuously elaborated but also challenged by researchers working across academic fields. In broad terms, motivated reasoning theory suggests that reasoning processes (information selection and evaluation, memory encoding, attitude formation, judgment, and decision-making) are influenced by motivations or goals. Motivations are desired end-states that individuals want to achieve. The number of these goals that have been theorized is numerous, but political scientists have focused principally on two broad categories of motivations: accuracy motivations (the desire to be “right” or “correct”) and directional or defensive motivations (the desire to protect or bolster a predetermined attitude or identity). While much research documents the effects of motivations for attitudes, beliefs, and knowledge, a growing literature highlights individual-level variables and contexts that moderate motivated reasoning.

Origins in Psychology

The theory of motivated reasoning was largely developed in cognitive and social psychology and later integrated into political science research (Lord, et al. 1979; Tetlock and Levi 1982; Kunda 1990). Research on how motivations and goals shape attitudes and behaviors is, in many respects, an extension of cognitive consistency theories (e.g., Festinger 1957). Early motivated reasoning research categorized different types of motivations and goals and discussed how they shaped the reasoning process (Kruglanski 1989; Kunda 1990). Yet, as Fishbach and Ferguson 2007 shows, the definition of motivations remains somewhat contested.

  • Festinger, L. A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 1957.

    A seminal book that catalyzed decades of research on consistency theories. There are certainly differences between contemporary motivated reasoning research and the theory of cognitive dissonance as outlined by Festinger, but motivated reasoning theory is rooted in earlier studies of how a drive for consistency shapes attitudes and behaviors.

  • Fishbach, A., and M. J. Ferguson. “The Goal Construct in Social Psychology.” In Social Psychology: A Handbook of Basic Principles. 2d ed. by A. W. Kruglanski and E. T. Higgins, 490–515. New York: Guilford, 2007.

    This chapter provides a modern review of the basic concept of a “goal” or “motivation” and reviews the literature on the mental representation of goals as psychological constructs, in contrast to other psychological structures such as attitudes, values, or beliefs.

  • Kruglanski, Arie W. “The Psychology of Being ‘Right’: The Problem of Accuracy in Social Perception and Cognition.” Psychological Bulletin 106.3 (1989): 395–409.

    DOI: 10.1037/0033-2909.106.3.395

    This article contrasts paradigms for thinking about and conceptualizing “accuracy” in social perceptions and judgments, and discusses the role played by different motivations.

  • Kunda, Ziva. “The Case for Motivated Reasoning.” Psychological Bulletin 108.3 (1990): 480–498.

    DOI: 10.1037/0033-2909.108.3.480

    This article synthesizes decades of psychological research to argue that motivations are central to the reasoning process (attitude formation, beliefs, information processing, and decision-making). Kunda provides several definitions and makes an important distinction between accuracy and directional motivations.

  • Lord, Charles G., Lee Ross, and Mark R. Lepper. “Biased Assimilation and Attitude Polarization: The Effects of Prior Theories on Subsequently Considered Evidence.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 37.11 (1979): 2098–2109.

    DOI: 10.1037/0022-3514.37.11.2098

    The authors find that when people were exposed to research supporting or opposing capital punishment, they rated studies consistent with their beliefs as more convincing. The acceptance of “confirming” evidence and resistance to “disconfirming” evidence resulted in the polarization of attitudes toward the death penalty.

  • Tetlock, P. E., and A. Levi. “Attribution Bias: On the Inconclusiveness of the Cognition-Motivation Debate.” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 18 (1982): 68–88.

    DOI: 10.1016/0022-1031(82)90082-8

    This paper provides a discussion of the relationship between—and the difficulty of empirically distinguishing—cognitive and motivational theories of attitude formation.

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