James N. Druckman
June 22, 2011
Taber and Lodge (2006) offer a powerful case for the prevalence of directional reasoning that aims not at truth, but at the vindication of prior opinions. Taber and Lodge’s results have far-reaching implications for empirical scholarship and normative theory; indeed, the very citizens often seen as performing “best” on tests of political knowledge, sophistication, and ideological constraint appear to be the ones who are the most susceptible to directional reasoning. However Taber and Lodge’s study, while internally beyond reproach, may substantially overstate the presence of motivated reasoning in political settings. That said, the focus on accuracy motivation has the potential to bring together two models of opinion formation that many treat as competitors and to offer a bases for assessing citizen competence.
*I thank Jeff Friedman, Samara Klar, and Thomas Leeper for extremely helpful advice. Criticizing citizens’ abilities to form coherent political preferences is a favorite pastime of scholars and pundits. Many focus on citizens’ lack of information or their inability to draw on coherent ideologies. In their article, “Motivated Skepticism in Political Beliefs” (2006), Taber and Lodge shift the focus to motivation. The question is not whether citizens possess sufficient information or hold information-organizing ideologies, but rather, whether they are sufficiently motivated to analyze new information in an evenhanded way. While Taber and Lodge exhibit appropriate caution in drawing normative conclusions, they are fairly resolved that most citizens lack the motivation to integrate new information in an unbiased fashion.
In this note, I suggest that under reasonable political conditions, citizens may be more fair-minded and engage in more accurate processing than they did in Taber and Lodge’s laboratory. I begin in the next section with a discussion of motivation and then I turn directly to Taber and Lodge.
Accuracy vs. Directional Goals
When forming an attitude, an individual can put forth varying levels of effort in the service of one or more motivations or goals (Kruglanski 1989; Fazio 1990; Fazio 2007, 610, 617). A motivation (or goal) is a “cognitive representation of a desired endpoint that impacts evaluations, emotions and behaviors” (Fishbach and Ferguson 2007, 491). Striving to obtain a goal motivates particular actions; the goal of forming an “accurate” preference means that an individual takes actions with the hope of generating a preference that is the “correct or otherwise best conclusion” (Taber and Lodge 756). What the “best outcome” entails is, of course, not always clear, and thus an accuracy goal is best understood relative to alternative goals such as a directional (or, in Taber and Lodge’s language, “partisan”) goal. When motivated by a directional orientation, one takes actions with the hope of defending prior beliefs or behaviors. The problem highlighted by Taber and Lodge is that when individuals possess a directional goal, they tend to not integrate new information and update their prior opinions in an even-handed and unbiased fashion. Instead, they often subconsciously interpret new information in light of their extant attitudes (Redlawsk 2002). The result is motivated reasoning (or what Taber and Lodge call “motivated skepticism”): the tendency to seek out information that confirms priors (i.e., a confirmation bias), to view evidence consistent with prior opinions as stronger (i.e., a prior attitude effect), and to spend more time counterarguing and dismissing evidence inconsistent with prior opinions, regardless of their objective accuracy (i.e., a disconfirmation bias). As Redlawsk (2002, 1025) explains, encountering contrary evidence may encourage people with directional goals to become even more favorable to...