Tag Archives: motivated reasoning

Messing With Our Minds

As if the websites peddling conspiracy theories and political propaganda weren’t enough, we now have to contend with “Deepfakes.” Deepfakes, according to the Brookings Institution, are 

videos that have been constructed to make a person appear to say or do something that they never said or did. With artificial intelligence-based methods for creating deepfakes becoming increasingly sophisticated and accessible, deepfakes are raising a set of challenging policy, technology, and legal issues.

Deepfakes can be used in ways that are highly disturbing. Candidates in a political campaign can be targeted by manipulated videos in which they appear to say things that could harm their chances for election. Deepfakes are also being used to place people in pornographic videos that they in fact had no part in filming.

Because they are so realistic, deepfakes can scramble our understanding of truth in multiple ways. By exploiting our inclination to trust the reliability of evidence that we see with our own eyes, they can turn fiction into apparent fact. And, as we become more attuned to the existence of deepfakes, there is also a subsequent, corollary effect: they undermine our trust in all videos, including those that are genuine. Truth itself becomes elusive, because we can no longer be sure of what is real and what is not.

The linked article notes that researchers are trying to devise technologies to detect deep fakes, but until there are apps or other tools that will identify these very sophisticated forgeries, we are left with “legal remedies and increased awareness,” neither of which is very satisfactory.

We already inhabit an information environment that has done more damage to social cohesion than previous efforts to divide and mislead. Thanks to the ubiquity of the Internet and social media (and the demise of media that can genuinely be considered “mass”), we are all free to indulge our confirmation biases–free to engage in what a colleague dubs “motivated reasoning.” It has become harder and harder to separate truth from fiction, moderate spin from outright propaganda.

One result is that thoughtful people–people who want to be factually accurate and intellectually honest–are increasingly unsure of what they can believe.

What makes this new fakery especially dangerous is that, as the linked article notes, most of us do think that “seeing is believing.” We are far more apt to accept visual evidence than other forms of information. There are already plenty of conspiracy sites that offer altered photographic “evidence”–of the aliens who landed at Roswell, of purportedly criminal behavior by public figures, etc. Now people intent on deception have the ability to make those alterations virtually impossible to detect.

Even if technology is developed that can detect fakery, will “motivated” reasoners rely on it?

Will people be more likely to believe a deepfake or a detection algorithm that flags the video as fabricated? And what should people believe when different detection algorithms—or different people—render conflicting verdicts regarding whether a video is genuine?

We are truly entering a new and unsettling “hall of mirrors” version of reality.

Ideology and the Informed Voter

Well, this is depressing.

We like to think that more informed voters are “better” voters–more likely to make reasoned decisions, more likely to base those decisions on evidence rather than emotion or prejudice.

We’d like to think that, but apparently we’d be wrong. Research increasingly confirms that more information does not necessarily translate into better judgment.

An informed voter is only as good as her information sources. And because we all get to choose which information sources to believe, voters with more information are not always more informed. Sometimes, they’re just more completely and profoundly misled.

Looking at the 1996 election, for instance, Achens and Bartels studied whether voters knew the budget deficit had dropped during President Clinton’s first term (it had, and sharply). What they found will shake anyone who believes more information leads to a smarter electorate: how much voters knew about politics mattered less than which party they supported. Republicans in the 80th percentile of political knowledge were less likely to answer the question correctly than Democrats in the 20th percentile of political knowledge.

It gets worse: Republicans in the 60th percentile of political knowledge were less likely to answer the question correctly than Republicans in the 10th percentile of political knowledge — which suggests that at least some of what we learn as we become more politically informed is how to mask our partisanship.

This is all part of what political scientists call “motivated reasoning”–the very human tendency to filter information through our personal worldviews.

Those of us who follow politics most closely do so because we care about issues of governance and have developed value structures and perspectives through which we analyze the information we acquire. The more invested we are in a particular approach to an issue, the more likely we are to apply our ideological “spin” to information about that issue.

It seems counter-intuitive, but it may be that voters who are less  invested in partisan politics and political philosophy–who don’t have a dog in the fight, as the saying goes– are actually more likely to cast votes based upon more or less dispassionate evaluations of the candidates and their campaigns.

If so, the more people who vote, the better.

About Those “Liberal” Professors

One of my graduate students pointed me to an interesting article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, highlighting a study into the persistent accusation that “liberal” professors are guilty of politically indoctrinating their students.

Dodson’s analysis of the data shows that students who get engaged academically are likely to increase their time talking about political issues and becoming engaged in civic life.

With regard to political views, academic engagement promoted moderation. “[T]he results indicate — in contrast to the concerns of many conservative commentators — that academic involvement generally moderates attitudes,” Dodson writes. “While conservative students do become more liberal as a result of academic involvement, liberals become more conservative as a result of their academic involvement. Indeed it appears that a critical engagement with a diverse set of ideas — a hallmark of the college experience — challenges students to re-evaluate the strength of their political convictions.”

The data on student activities demonstrate the opposite impact: The more involved that liberal students get, the more liberal they become, while the more involved conservative students get, the more conservative they become.”This finding suggests that students seek out and engage with familiar social environments — a choice that leads to the strengthening of their political beliefs.”

This research is consistent with a study I saw a few years ago: when people who were moderately inclined to believe X were placed in a discussion group with others who all believed X, they emerged from the experience much more invested in X. People who participated in more diverse discussions–who were placed in groups representing a range of positions on X–developed more nuanced (and less dogmatic) opinions about X.

It all comes back to what academics call motivated reasoning… the willingness of people invested in a particular worldview to choose the news and select the information environments that reinforce their pre-existing beliefs.

A good teacher provides students with a wide range of relevant information, at least some  of which will inevitably challenge their worldviews. As I tell my students, it’s my job to confuse you. I’ll know I’ve succeeded if, after taking my class, students use two phrases more frequently: “it depends,” and “it’s more complicated than that.”

Because, really–it is more complicated than that.