Motivated Cognition

Motivated cognition is an important concept in understanding how we perceive the world and why we tend to assign unrealistically high trust to information received by those close to us and whom we hold in high esteem, and members of groups of which we are also part, as opposed to other people and members of other groups.

Studies show that motivation affects cognition in various domains including self-perception, person perception, and intergroup relations. These social contexts activate goals that bias information processing at several stages: visual perception, attention, memory, and decision-making. Understanding the structure of motivated cognition is key to reducing the harmful consequences of biased thinking. Perhaps surprisingly, self-enhancing perception bias is notable among individuals with whom we tend to place our trust: over 90% of 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. (Dunning, 2004) Similarly, people wish to live in a coherent and consistent world. This leads people to recognise patterns where there are none, perceive control over random events, and shift their attitudes to be consistent with their past behaviours.

These are just a few examples of how personal goals and needs direct individuals' thinking towards desired conclusions. (Kunda, 1990; Taylor 1988) And numerous other examples demonstrate how motivation influences perception, attention (diverting attention to information which supports desired conclusions) and decision-making. One of our favourite examples is the “cocktail-party effect” which demonstrates how self-referential stimuli can elicit attentional capture, when at a large party the individual is able to focus on a particular conversation and ignore, or filter out, all other conversations and noises, but can instantaneously switch to another conversation if and when their name is mentioned, even though the mention took place in an ignored auditory channel. (Moray, 1959)

Among other impacts, motivation-driven cognitive bias leads to: people taking credit for success, but not for failures; to elevating partners and group members in unrealistic ways while at the same time denigrating out-group members; to adjusting attitudes as a way to reduce dissonance.

Suggested use in training

The main learning outcome that would contribute to learners becoming more resistant to tactics and manipulations involving motivated cognition is achieving greater awareness and understanding, including recognising typical traits and patterns in digital information online.

Motivated cognition is tightly related to cognitive biases and logical fallacies, so a good plan could be to integrate elements of these three domains when preparing and delivering a lesson.

An interesting and engaging activity could be providing participants with a mix of true and false statements or news articles. Then ask the learners to:

  1. Determine the credibility of each one, outlining the factors that helped them make the determination.
  2. Note down any strong emotional reactions that the information has triggered. If working in a group, extend the instructions and ask people to also keep an eye on and note their teammates' emotional reactions.

Start a discussion focusing on the relationship between emotional reactions and motivated cognition. Also discuss how previously held beliefs or stereotypes may have influenced them. Guide the discussion so that it becomes evident that the same piece of core information can be more impactful by employing different motivated cognition factors, and how this can be exploited by ill-intended people or groups. Consider how motivated cognition may affect decision-making and action.


How it relates to disinformation?

Exploiting this psychological phenomenon can be incredibly effective, ensuring the false narratives gain traction and influence. Here are some examples: