Fellows | 1 February 2017

Motivated Reasoning: A Philosopher On Confirmation Bias


Heard on: All Things Considered

Jonathan Ellis, a professor of philosophy at the University of California, Santa Cruz, talks about confirmation bias and its impact on our daily lives.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST: And now we want to take a few minutes to talk about why people seem willing to believe or at least tolerate assertions that may or may not be grounded in truth. Social scientists call this confirmation bias. That’s when we are drawn to information that aligns with our world views and when we hold onto these beliefs, even in the face of compelling evidence to the contrary.

To hear more about this, we called Jonathan Ellis, a Professor of Philosophy at the University of California, Santa Cruz. He researches confirmation bias at the Center for Public Philosophy, and we reached him in Santa Cruz. Professor Ellis, welcome.

JONATHAN ELLIS: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: I understand that you prefer the term reasoning with an agenda. But either way, tell us more about this subject of confirmation bias or reasoning with an agenda.

ELLIS: Well, first of all, it’s worth pointing out that human beings have been doing this forever. So Thucydides, an ancient Greek historian, wrote that it’s a habit of human beings to use sovereign reason to thrust aside what they do not fancy. And what he was describing, and in fact what countless playwrights, philosophers and novelists have described ever since, are these human tendencies towards confirmation bias, rationalizations, self-deception. And I think this is the same problem that we’re observing in our political culture today.

MARTIN: Well, you know, to that point, I was going to ask you this – do we all engage in this or are there certain times when we are more disposed to this? Are there patterns here?

ELLIS: Well, that’s a good question. And there’s a lot of research going on about that. When we have a lot at stake, we find that these subconscious prophecies distort our reasoning. One thing that we all need to do is to acknowledge that we’re all susceptible to it.


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