Reducing motivated reasoning on controversial science – Testing which factors best promote open-minded processing of information

Author: April Eichmeier – University of Wisconsin-Madison, USA

Co-author: Neil Stenhouse – University of Wisconsin-Madison

In this study, we investigate ways to counter a phenomenon known as motivated reasoning. Motivated reasoning happens when people think rationally about a topic, but do so in a biased way to reinforce their pre-existing views about the subject. In many areas of controversial science such as GMO crops and biofuels, motivated reasoning will often make people less likely to use the best available science in making decisions, leading to damaging outcomes for society.

Scholars have begun to investigate how dispositions such as open-minded thinking and scientific curiosity may reduce motivated reasoning about science. Previous work has generally only considered one or two factors influencing open-minded processing at a time. By considering several different factors, we make it possible to see which has the largest effect in reducing motivated reasoning. In an online experiment on a nationally representative sample of US adults, participants are presented with information on controversial scientific topics that are either aligned with or contrary to their own viewpoint. We discuss which dispositions make it more likely that individuals seriously consider the information that goes against their own views, as opposed to rejecting the message.

This work aids in the development of science communication theory by helping better understand the theoretical nature of dispositions that promote open-minded processing of scientific information. In addition, assuming that dispositions that decrease motivated reasoning can be deliberately cultivated, this work offers clues for helping increase citizens’ ability to put the best available science to use, while minimizing the distorting influence of political ideology and other biasing factors.

The author has not yet submitted a copy of the full paper.

Presentation type: Individual paper
Theme: Society
Area of interest: Building a theoretical basis for science communication