June 6th, 2012

Motivated reasoning blocks “seeing” harm to people

We called it schematic processing back when I taught psychology in university. People outside the cognitive social sciences knew it as selective attention. Now the phenomenon is called motivated reasoning. It explains how people on two different sides of an issue can be so certain of their arguments in defense of their positions. Opinions serve as the filter through which evidence is weighed.

“Rational” people, those of us who still believe in the Enlightenment (as all of the U.S. Founding Fathers did and most liberal arts college graduates used to), think facts are facts, that arguments can be won by emphasizing objective unmistakable facts. But in our polarized society, opinions, passed off as facts, muddy facts to the point of unrecognizeability. The other side simply denies the facts by saying that your reality is simply not true. They base their opposition on privately held beliefs (their reasoning is based on other motivations than truth seeking, for example, fear of people trying to harm them or to take their guns away or to force them to become homosexuals, etc.). Thus, rational thought has to be made conditional, “rational” in other words.

A most sickening example happened on Friday June 1.

On June 1 Maria Gunnoe testified before the House Committee on Natural Resources. She took a slide show of Katie Falkenberg photographs to make her point that mountain top removal for coal in West Virginia pollutes groundwater with toxic chemicals, including arsenic.

One dramatic photo showed a young girl sitting in a bathtub of murky water. Her parents granted permission to use the dramatic photo. My attention is drawn to the sickening sight of a girl having to bathe in toxic sludge. Since I’m appalled by mountain top removal, my “motivated reasoning” lens guides me to see the water. I remember in the Josh Fox documentary, Gasland, the flammable tap water that is contaminated by chemicals used by oil company fracking processes.

The alternative reality to counter my own perception was the one shared by House Committee staffers, committee member Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-CO), and committee chair Rep. Doc Hastings (R-WA). Staffers told Lamborn and Hastings about the photo of a nude girl in a tub being brought to Congress by the award-winning environmentalist and opponent of the coal industry. You see, they saw a nude girl, not the brown arsenic-laden water.

Lamborn, a self-proclaimed ally of the coal industry, told Gunnoe to not show that particular photo. She did not. After the hearing, the Capitol Police detained Gunnoe to question her about charges of child pornography! It seems staffers, Lamborn and Hastings all called the police.

No one can say why their reaction to a girl in a bathtub triggers such strong sexual responses or if it was all a ruse to make sure a very potent photo could not be used to make the moral case against the coal industry. The certainty is that they chose to not see the filthy water that little girl had to use for bathing.

In bullying situations at work, the same processes that lead to deniability are used by bullying apologists. While we at WBI and everyone who has been bullied immediately gravitate toward the plight of the bullied target (because we are motivated to perceive harm to people as the most important aspect of any situation to fix), bullying apologists, instead, consider harm to be routine consequence of more important business processes.

Here’s who sees it differently than us and why:

– corporate defense attorneys – they are paid to see all action through the lens of unlimited managerial prerogative by their clients, the employers. Anyone who dares complain is a malcontent and disgruntled, unappreciative worker.

– complaint investigators – who are either managers, representatives of management (HR), or external professionals hired by the employer — they see complainants as whiners, weak, and less fit in the darwinian scheme of organizational politics — they complain because they are flawed individuals, the employer deserves to be defended, whereas all the work environment factors (the dirty water in the tub that causes the harm) are left uncritically unexplored

– managers — bullied targets threaten them with superior skills and the trait of nagging others so that justice is done

– coworkers — because the target’s pain triggers vicarious pain from witnessing the wrongdoing, they are motivated to redirect their focus away from their former colleagues lest they show an empathic bond, which in turn, results in guilt for not taking their friend’s side

– business media commentators — it’s all about the CEO’s world, tales of abuse in the trenches shatter the corporate myth that all is well and nothing bad happens here, hence the denial that bullying is a systemic, rather than an isolated personal, problem lets the good times roll on

See the harm. Get motivated to stop it. Help your bullied friends.

Take the motivated reasoning litmus test. What do you see in the tub photo?


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This entry was posted on Wednesday, June 6th, 2012 at 12:08 pm and is filed under Documentaries, Fairness & Social Justice Denied, Related Phenomena. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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