Do Blogging (and Blog Commenting) Encourage Motivated Reasoning?

The Intersection
By Chris Mooney
May 31, 2011 6:31 PMNov 20, 2019 1:21 AM


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This post is inspired by a very intriguing comment on one of my recent DeSmogBlog posts from "colinski":

I usually attend to the tone of comments more than their substantive aspect, because this is how affect is communicated. I credit Erving Goffman for this approach. Another way of looking at it is through transactional analysis type of analysis, in which semantic content is glossed over in favor of it's broad emotional message. People are 'explaining themselves' in terms of how they'd like to see themselves.

I know, right? On radio shows now, and at public events, I listen for emotion in the voices of those posing adversarial questions. You can hear the tremble often, and how the speed of talking increases. But commentary on the Internet, far more than traditional journalism, has to be regarded as a particular kind of beast. Traditional journalism emphasized values and norms like balance, dispassion. They certainly weren't without problems, but one thing that I believe to be very important and valuable was that you were not supposed to inflame audiences and push buttons. That was demagoguery. That wasn't journalism. But as blogs have come to supplant journalism, and bloggers not trained in journalism have grown popular and learned how to feed the beast, something else has occurred. A much faster, more frank, and frequently far more emotional discourse has ensued. This is not only true of blog posts, it is perhaps even more true of blog comments. In light of what we now know about motivated reasoning, this is a reason for concern. Motivated reasoning is just the technical name for a process in which we respond rapidly, subconsciously, and emotionally to a subject, and then justify our preexisting point of view without even knowing we're doing it. It's something we do on topics where we're made to feel very strongly, passionately. And we then proceed to rationalize, thinking all the time that we're reasoning. Blogs--and blog commenting--allow us to respond even more rapidly (without calm reflection) and emotionally (without editorial filter) than before. They are therefore a very ripe environment for motivated reasoning to occur. And indeed, I must confess that I have done this, albeit unwittingly until now--and I challenge any blogger who writes about contentious matters to claim that he or she has not. Here's the basic process: You need to do a post on something. So you go web searching to find something to post about--and often, it is something that ticks you off in some way. After all, you've blasted this kind of idiocy before, right? And the posts where you blast idiocy usually get a good response, don't they? So you find that example that ticks you off, and you blast it again, just like you always have--linking back to prior posts and reiterating some of the things you've said before. And then your commenters respond with outrage--"I can't believe so and so is saying X, it's the same old stupid crap"! Or worse. What has just happened? Well, motivated reasoning would say that for both blogger and blog commenter, we've let our emotions guide the retrieval of arguments and associations, from memory, leading us to go through the same thought processes we always have and the same arguments we've always made--with, perhaps, a few new twists or recombinations based on the particular context....but fundamentally, it's the same pathway. Both for the blogger, and for the blogger's like-minded audience. Both get their emotions to fire. Both think they're reasoning--but then, so do the people they're attacking! Who are also doing the same thing! Now picture the same process playing out not just at this blog, or on climate change blogs, or on climate change skeptic blogs, but also on science blogs, and political blogs, and newspaper websites, and conspiracy theorist blogs, and basically, every kind of blog. And think of what this does to politics and the way we conduct our discourse. I believe this kind of "motivated blogging" is highly prevalent--on both sides--in the climate change arena. So then, how do I justify the opinion that I am "right," and my opponents "wrong," about the science of climate change? The answer, of course, is that far more calm, dispassionate, expert-driven, and professionalized processes underlie that scientific consensus, which are what give us good reason to believe it and trust it. If any process can serve as a partial antidote to motivated reasoning, it is the scientific process, not because any single actor in that process is dispassionate, but rather because they all are (hopefully) serving as checks on one another. But if respect for science, and professionalized scientific processes, isn't winning out in the public arena--well, perhaps this post gives a small indication as to why.

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