Delusion and Self-Deception – Affective and Motivational Influences on Belief Formation

I almost gave up on this book after having read 10-15 pages, but I decided in the end to read on and I now believe this was the right decision; some of this stuff is quite interesting.

Some observations from the book below.

“Do delusion and self-deception involve departures from the procedural norms of belief formation? Self-deception — at least, everyday self-deception — need involve no such departure from the procedural norms of belief formation. There is overwhelming evidence that normal human beings have a systematically distorted self-conception […] Drivers tend to believe that their driving abilities are above average […], teachers tend to believe that their teaching abilities are above average […], and most of us believe that we are less prone to self-serving biases than others are […] [See also this previous post of mine…]. Having an overly positive self-image seems to be part of the functional profile of the human doxastic system; indeed, one might even argue that having an accurate self-conception is an indication of doxastic malfunction

“On the face of things, it seems obvious that delusions involve departures — typically, quite radical departures — from the procedural norms of human belief formation. Delusions stand out as exotic specimens in the garden of belief, as examples of what happens precisely when the mechanisms of belief formation break down. In support of this point, it is of some note that the DSM characterization of delusion includes a special exemption for religious beliefs. This exemption appears to be ad hoc from the perspective of the epistemic account of delusions […and I believe it’s fair to say that far from all people agree this exception should be made…], but it is perfectly appropriate in the context of the procedural norms account, because — certain commentators to the contrary — there is no reason to suppose that religious belief as such is indicative of doxastic malfunction.[2] Delusions, by contrast, do seem to be symptomatic of doxastic malfunction [my italics, US].”

“Affect and motivation are typically contrasted with cognition and perception; the former constitute “hot cognition” and the latter constitute “cold cognition.” Although intuitively compelling, the contrast between hot and cold cognition is difficult to spell out with any precision. […] Hot cognition has traditionally been regarded as an enemy of rationality […] But to say that affect can derail belief formation is not to say that it always derails belief formation. It is now widely granted that affect contributes to belief formation and cognition more generally in a number of positive ways […] Judged against epistemic norms there is not much to recommend motivated reasoning, for epistemic justification is constitutively tied to avoiding falsehood and detecting truth. But there are other norms against which to judge belief formation. For example, one might evaluate the mechanisms of belief fixation in terms of how well they enhance the agent’s well-being, reproductive fitness, or some such property. Arguably, one is generally better off believing that the world is how it is rather than how one wants it to be, but there are some domains — perhaps quite a number of domains — in which false but motivated belief brings significant benefit at little cost. A life governed by indiscriminately motivated belief might be nasty, brutish, and short, but suitably filtered motivational effects on belief might be expected to increase the agent’s well-being in any number of ways.”

“The judgments that make up the most pivotal points in our lives are seldom made dispassionately. When we await news from our beloved regarding her deliberations on a proposal of marriage, news from our doctor regarding the results of a medical test, or (perhaps as important to many of us) news from a journal editor regarding the fate of our latest manuscript, we do not approach that information with the cold detachment of a computer awaiting its next input. When we process information about valued aspects of self like our attractiveness, health, or intelligence, we almost always have clear preferences for what we want that information to hold. Rather than being indifferent to whether information suggests that we are loved or spurned, healthy or ill, published or one step closer to perishing, our processing of self-relevant information is usually accompanied by strong hopes and fears — hope that the information will favor the judgment conclusion we want to reach and fear that it will not.
Given the ubiquity of motivational forces as concomitants of important real-world judgments, it seems strange that documenting their role in judgment processes has been one of the thorniest problems in the history of experimental psychology. Terms such as “denial” and “wishful thinking” are mainstays of the contemporary vernacular and evidence for their role in everyday judgment would likely seem so obvious to the average person as to defy the need for empirical confirmation. At a formal scientific level, however, the simple proposition that what people believe can be affected by what they want to believe has proven to be a surprisingly controversial idea. […] the view I will present in this chapter is that people often come to believe what they want to believe (and disbelieve what they want not to believe) because of a quite reasonable tendency to think more deeply about negative information than positive information. By conceiving of motivation as affecting the quantity rather than the quality of cognitive processing, much of the mystery surrounding motivated reasoning is removed, and it can be understood as simply another example of the pervasive tendency in human thought to allocate cognitive resources strategically.”

“space precludes a nuanced treatment of the large corpus of empirical findings regarding self-serving bias, but the essence of the phenomenon, demonstrated across a number of studies, is that individuals receiving success feedback tend to report more internal and less external attributions for the causes of the feedback than do individuals receiving identically structured failure feedback”

“in comparison to the cognitive view, which explained errors and biases as unintentional miscues of imperfect but essentially functional information-processing strategies, motivational phenomena like “defensiveness” and “self-enhancement” implied a less benign view of people as intentionally distorting reality to serve their own egocentric purposes. […] [this] idea […] posed a significant challenge to most people’s intuition and thus dampened many researchers’ enthusiasm for motivational accounts of judgmental bias. […] At the theoretical level, the maturing field of social cognition has witnessed a gradual breakdown of the artificial barrier that originally existed between motivational and cognitive processes […]. Against this backdrop, a number of theories were generated during the late 1980s that attempted to specify how motivational forces might enter into and perturb the generic information-processing sequence […]. The key insight in this regard was the simple idea (absent in almost all early treatments of motivated bias) that if motivational factors are to affect cognitive outcomes, they must do so by affecting some aspect of cognitive process.
Together, these empirical and theoretical advances ushered in a new era of research on motivated bias, allowing researchers to move beyond the first-generation question of determining whether motivational forces affect cognitive processes to more interesting second-generation questions focused on distinguishing between different accounts of how this influence occurs”

“The prototypical phenomenon in the motivated reasoning literature is the pervasive tendency for individuals to accept more readily the validity of information consistent with a preferred judgment conclusion (preference-consistent information) than that of information inconsistent with a preferred judgment conclusion (preference-inconsistent information). Both perceptual defense and the self-serving attributional bias can be framed as examples of this general phenomenon, and similar effects have been found to occur whether the flattering or threatening information concerns one’s intelligence […], professional competence […], personality […], social sensitivity […], or vulnerability to future illness […].
But why does this differential acceptance occur? How does the processing of preference-consistent information differ from that of preference-inconsistent information? Most treatments of motivated reasoning suggest, either explicitly or implicitly, that the difference lies in the kind of processing people apply to the two types of information. […] According to this view, then, the desire to reach a specific judgment conclusion affects the quality of information processing: People approach preference-consistent and preference-inconsistent information with different processing goals and then use a biased set of cognitive operations to pursue those goals actively. […] a large body of research in social cognition [show] that negative information and negative affective states produce more systematic, detail-oriented cognitive processing than do positive information and positive affective states […] The most common explanation for this asymmetry is an adaptive one. Negative stimuli are more likely than positive ones to require an immediate behavioral response (to avoid loss or harm). As such, negative stimuli tend to evoke a “mobilization” response that includes a narrowing and focusing of attention and an increase in detail-oriented cognitive analysis […] This body of work suggests that the key difference in the processing of preference- consistent and preference-inconsistent information may not lie in the kind of processing each receives, but rather in the intensity of that processing. That is, rather than actively working to construct justifications for preference-consistent information […], information we want to believe may often be accepted unthinkingly at face value. In contrast, because information inconsistent with a preferred judgment conclusion is more likely to initiate an effortful cognitive appraisal, alternative explanations for the unwanted information are likely to be considered, generating uncertainty regarding the validity of the information. Ditto and Lopez (1992) referred to this view of motivated reasoning as the quantity of processing (QOP) view to highlight the contention that it is the amount or intensity of cognitive processing that most clearly differentiates the treatment of preference-consistent and preference-inconsistent information rather than the direction or intended goal of that processing.”

“As a motivational theory, the QOP model predicts that people will respond more skeptically to preference-inconsistent than preference-consistent information even when the consistency of the two types of information with prior expectations is equivalent. […] the QOP view does not deny that factors such as the consistency of information with prior expectations affect how effortfully that information is processed. For example, an individual who discovers that she is holding a multimillion-dollar lottery ticket is initially likely to respond quite skeptically, checking and rechecking the number on her ticket against the number on the television screen in an attempt to confirm that this highly unexpected windfall is actually true.
What the QOP view does suggest, however, is that the consistency of information with an individual’s expectations and the consistency of information with an individual’s preferences have analogous but independent effects on intensity of cognitive processing. People should be prompted to think deeply about events that they do not expect and those they do not want. In fact, the reason that the roles of expectation and motivation (i.e., positive vs. negative outcome) have historically been so difficult to disentangle is that both factors are typically posited to have identical effects on judgment. At an empirical level, this means that any attempt to confirm the QOP model (or any other motivational model for that matter) must take care to mimic the approach used in the example to rule out differential expectations as a plausible alternative for any putatively preference-based effects. […] the QOP model assume that merely thinking more intensely about a piece of information leads to a greater likelihood of considering multiple explanations for it. This assumption seems particularly noncontroversial. The guiding presupposition of the entire attributional perspective in psychology is that almost all human events are causally ambiguous, and thus people must infer why things occur from very limited observational data […]. Stated more simply, given a little motivation, people can generate multiple plausible explanations for virtually any piece of information. […] if negative affect indeed promotes more intensive cognitive analysis than does positive affect, it is almost inevitable that people will be more likely to consider multiple explanations for unwanted outcomes than wanted ones.”

“The QOP model does not require that people convince themselves of the inaccuracy of undesirable information. Instead, it predicts that people will be more uncertain about the validity of preference-inconsistent than preference-consistent information because of their greater likelihood of entertaining the possibility that unwanted information might be explainable in more than one way […] Because people adopt this more skeptical stance toward preference-inconsistent than preference-consistent information, it should simply require more (or better) information to convince someone of something he or she does not want to believe than of something he or she does. […] At the empirical level, there seems solid support for the predictions of the QOP model of motivated reasoning. Both of the key predictions of the model—that people are more likely to spontaneously question the validity of preference-inconsistent than preference-consistent information and that people are more sensitive to the quality of preference-inconsistent than preference-consistent information—have been confirmed by experimental research. This research has taken care to rule out nonmotivational explanations for the observed effects, and the findings are equally difficult to explain based on competing conceptualizations of how motivation alters cognitive processing. [I’d prefer to see more studies before concluding anything, but their findings certainly seem to support the model. It would go too far to cover the findings in detail here, but I’d note that a few of the studies done on this topic are actually quite clever – US].

“People frequently believe things that they would rather not believe. I would rather be taller, more athletic, and have a better head of hair, but I do not believe that I possess any of these characteristics because the data simply will not let me. In some of the earliest work on motivated cognition, no lesser figures than Bruner […], Festinger […], and Heider […] all suggest that what we ultimately see and believe is not solely what we wish to see and believe, but rather represents a compromise between our wishes and the objective stimulus information provided by sense and reason. As such, any analysis of motivated reasoning must account for both sides of the resistance–sensitivity coin.
Central to the QOP view is an image of people as fundamentally adaptive information processors. Whereas qualitative treatments of motivated reasoning portray people as intentionally pursuing the goal of reaching a desired conclusion, the QOP view sees the reluctance of people to acknowledge the validity of unwanted information as an unintentional by-product of a quite reasonable strategy of directing detail-oriented cognitive processing toward potentially threatening environmental stimuli”

“A datum’s vividness for us often is a function of such things as its concreteness and its sensory, temporal, or spatial proximity. Vivid data are more likely to be recognized, attended to, and recalled than pallid data. Consequently, vivid data tend to have a disproportional influence on the formation and retention of beliefs. […] Although sources of biased belief [such as vividness of information] apparently can function independently of motivation, they also may be triggered and sustained by desires in the production of motivationally biased beliefs.[3] For example, desires can enhance the vividness or salience of data.”

“At least some delusional patients show considerable appreciation of the implausibility of their delusional beliefs […] Capgras delusion patients can be…able to appreciate that they are making an extraordinary claim. If you ask “what would you think if I told you my wife had been replaced by an impostor,” you will often get answers to the effect that it would be unbelievable, absurd, an indication that you had gone mad.” [Yet they continue to believe it’s true in their own case. This stuff is just weird.] […] Some patients in whom overt face recognition is impaired (patients with prosopagnosia) nevertheless show autonomic responses that distinguish familiar from unfamiliar faces […]. Ellis and Young propose that the reverse dissociation of impairments is found in Capgras patients: Overt face recognition is intact but the normal autonomic response to a familiar face (such as the face of a spouse) is absent. Ellis and colleagues […] provide evidence supporting this proposal. In patients with the Capgras delusion, skin conductance response (a measure of autonomic response) does not distinguish between familiar faces (famous faces or family faces) and unfamiliar faces. Ellis and Young (1990) thus suggest that the Capgras patient has an experience of seeing a face that looks just like the spouse, but without the affective response that would normally be an integral part of that experience. The delusion then arises as the patient tries to explain this peculiar experience.”


November 30, 2014 - Posted by | Books, Psychology

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