Are You Guilty Of ‘Motivated Reasoning’ With Weather Forecasts Or Coronavirus Messaging?

I am an atmospheric scientist, professor, and the former president of the American Meteorological Society. From these lenses, I have spent a career fascinated by weather, climate, and related societal interactions. From the time I made weather instruments for my 6th grade science project, I knew that a career in meteorology was in my future. My interests were always “how’s and why’s” of weather rather than forecasting it, but I pay attention to all aspects of the field. I am particularly fascinated with how the general public consumes weather and other science information. One tendency that I often observed is “wishcasting.” I define wishcasting as the process of dismissing consensus weather information or selectively consuming it to meet an individual’s wants, needs, or desires. People want their baseball games, date nights, and “normal lives during the pandemic so wishcasting has reared its head during the pandemic too. I have also discovered that it has a name: Motivated Reasoning.

As a scientist, my discussions are often grounded within the peer-review literature so that is where I turn for a definition of motivated reasoning. According to a 1990 study published in the journal Psychological Bulletin, Zika Kunda argues that people have a tendency to arrive at conclusions that they desire or want to arrive at even if objective data or scenarios don’t support those conclusions. I am not a psychologist, but motivated reasoning sure sounds like it has a relative called confirmation bias (seeking information that supports what you already believe). The American Psychological Association (APA), a leading professional organization within the discipline, highlights the work of Kunda in an online teaching tip sheet about motivated reasoning. The APA website says, “Her analysis of this research led further to the conclusion that motivated reasoning is only possible when the individual is able to generate apparently reasonable justifications for the motivated belief; this happens, however, outside of the person’s conscious awareness.” The discussion goes on to describe how bias in evaluation, access, and constructing narratives are central to motivated reasoning.

With definition in hand, let’s explore some examples of motivated reasoning. I live in Georgia, which doesn’t receive much snow annually. When there is the possibility of snow in the forecast, it is amusing to see motivated reasoning kick in. The forecast could call for snow in the mountains of Georgia, but many people in the Atlanta areas will rush to grocery stores for milk, eggs, and bread (French toast anyone?). Another scenario plays out (and not just in the South) when meteorologists forecast a range of potential snow totals like 3 to 6 inches. The “snow lover” tends to only hear 6 inches and if 3 inches falls, the forecast might be perceived as inaccurate though it wasn’t. I see this all of the time in public perceptions of forecasts.

There are numerous other weather examples that come to mind. People often ignore high probability rainfall forecasts and opt for “hope” or “we’ll take our chances.” They also dismiss hurricane forecasts and choose not to evacuate based on the flawed assumption that they survived previous storms even though we routinely warn that each storm is different.

Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed instances of motivated reasoning as well. The simple but seemingly illusive desire for normalcy (football games, dining out, and so forth) and the understandable needs for economic stability have led to motivated reasoning. I see it on a daily basis in my social media feeds and in political decision-making as people rationalize or misrepresent the data to shape narratives to fit their wants or needs. Professor Janet Frick is an associate professor of psychology at the University of Georgia. My colleague told me in a message, “None of us are capable of judging situations or assessing risk in a completely unbiased way, and all of us judge situations in our life in light of what we hope to be true.” Frick also points out that the psychological concept of motivated reasoning illustrates how our biases and cognitive frameworks are always at play in the way we make sense of the world. She also added, “We have to realize that our minds will do all kinds of tricks to prevent ourselves from confronting bad news that we wish weren’t true.”

As we continue to navigate the pandemic, be cognizant of your own biases and motivated reasoning.

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