Tuesday, February 24, 2015

The neuroscience of motivated cognition.

I want to point to this interesting open source article by Hughes and Zaki, who review research from social psychology and cognitive neuroscience that provides insight into the structure of motivated cognition (that can bias or distort reality), suggesting that it pervades information processing and is often effortless. Here are the opening paragraphs:
People often believe that their thinking aims squarely at gaining an accurate impression of reality. Upon closer inspection, this assumption collapses. Instead, like the inhabitants of Garrison Keillor's Lake Woebegon, individuals often see themselves and close others as possessing unrealistically high levels of positive attributes such as likeability, morality, and attractiveness. This bias persists among individuals who should know better: over 90% college professors believe their work is better than that of their peers, CIA analysts overestimate the accuracy of their predictions for future events, and doctors overconfidently estimate their medical knowledge.
These cases exemplify the phenomenon of motivated cognition, by which the goals and needs of individuals steer their thinking towards desired conclusions. A variety of motivations pervasively shapes cognition. For example, people wish to live in a coherent and consistent world. This leads people to recognize patterns where there are none, perceive control over random events, and shift their attitudes to be consistent with their past behaviors. People also need to feel good about themselves and about others with whom they identify. As such, people often self-enhance, evaluating themselves as having more desirable personalities and rosier future prospects than their peers, and taking personal credit for successes, but not failures. People likewise elevate their relationship partners and in-group members (e.g., people who share their political affiliation) in demonstrably unrealistic ways. Motivations can also have the opposite effect, leading people to derogate out-group members, even when the lines that divide ‘us’ from ‘them’ are defined de novo by researchers.
The authors follow this by noting studies demonstrating motivated cognition in perception, attention, decision making, etc.

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