Motivated reasoning

MOTIVATED REASONING…. To paraphrase Twain, right-wing health care talking points can travel the nation, while the truth is still getting its pants on. If the most frustrating aspect of the policy debate is the willingness of reform opponents to make stuff up, the most dejecting is the willingness of gullible people to believe nonsense.

And believe it they do. Just a couple of weeks ago, an NBC News poll found that most Americans have already come to believe a wide variety of transparently false claims, all of which have been pushed aggressively by the right.

Of particular interest, though, are those who are confronted with reality, but prefer to believe lies anyway. There’s widespread confusion, to be sure, but there’s also a large group who deliberately embrace the lies they’ve been told. Newsweek‘s Sharon Begley, for example, recently wrote a piece scrutinizing reform myths. She found, not surprisingly, that a wide variety of right-wing allegations are without foundation in fact.

For her trouble, Begley was blasted by conservatives for, ironically enough, having “lost touch with reality.” Some far-right Newsweek readers even wished her dead for daring to write a piece that debunked claims they preferred to believe were true.

In a follow-up piece, Begley considers the thinking behind this bizarre trend. She spoke to sociologist Steven Hoffman who explained, “Rather than search rationally for information that either confirms or disconfirms a particular belief, people actually seek out information that confirms what they already believe.” For the most part, he added, “people completely ignore contrary information” and are able to “develop elaborate rationalizations based on faulty information.”

Which brings us back to health-care reform — in particular, the apoplexy at town-hall meetings and the effectiveness of the lies being spread about health-care reform proposals. First of all, let’s remember that 59,934,814 voters cast their ballot for John McCain, so we can assume that tens of millions of Americans believe the wrong guy is in the White House. To justify that belief, they need to find evidence that he’s leading the country astray. What better evidence of that than to seize on the misinformation about Obama’s health-care reform ideas and believe that he wants to insure illegal aliens, for example, and give the Feds electronic access to doctors’ bank accounts?

Obama’s opponents also need to find evidence that their reading of him back in November was correct. They therefore seize on “confirmation” that he wants to, for instance, redistribute the wealth, as in his “spread the wealth around” remark to Joe the Plumber — finding such confirmation in the claims that health-care reform will do just that, redistributing health care from those who have it now to the 46 million currently uninsured. Similarly, they seize on anything that confirms the “socialist” label that got pinned on Obama during the campaign, or the pro-abortion label — anything to comfort themselves that they made the right choice last November.

There are legitimate, fact-based reasons to oppose health-care reform. But some of the loudest opposition is the result of confirmatory bias, cognitive dissonance, and other examples of mental processes that have gone off the rails.

Of course, it’s difficult to explain this to the enraged conservatives who are convinced that health care reform would destroy civilization. They like their delusions, thank you very much, and prefer that reality be kept at arm’s length.

As for what to do about it, I’m open to suggestion. Ignorance seems to be spreading like a virus, which makes the discourse stupid and constructive debate nearly impossible.