Anyone who works in counseling knows how difficult it can be to alter someone’s viewpoint. In psychology, that’s often explained as the result of motivated reasoning.

Good therapists learn to avoid arguing with patients about, well, anything of importance. Even when the therapist is in the right. Or perhaps especially then.

Working description of motivated reasoning: Cognitive processes under the influence of emotional need, so that new information is processed in such a way as to conform to those needs, and confirm a preexisting viewpoint.

Sometimes this arrives in the form of confirmation bias. Example: TV viewers who watch only news shows that reflect their own views; or the offender with multiple drunk driving convictions who insists he doesn’t drink any more than his buddies– but seeks out the company of heavy drinkers.

The reasoning process is motivated by an intense need or desire to arrive at a particular conclusion. It isn’t what it pretends to be, which is an objective assessment of facts.

Naturally, conclusions reached by motivated reasoning are frequently wrong. That doesn’t mean that the “reasoner” is ignorant, illogical, or stupid. It simply means their emotions are in the driver’s seat. In fact, research suggests that smart, well-educated, otherwise logical individuals may be more difficult to reach with new information than their less educated peers.

“At least now I know why lawyers and doctors are so tough to treat,” mutters an addiction counselor.

It’s an interesting point: Suppose the cognitive skills of the most educated can work against them when it comes to acknowledging an emotionally stressful reality?

When confronted with such resistance, arguing can reinforce the patient’s emotional investment in the mistaken attitude or belief. That’s not good. A better approach is to seek out the motivation behind the belief. The question: What makes this so important to this person? What do they fear might happen? Loss of family? Loss of face? Facing life without a substance they’ve depended on?

It opens up a wide range of areas for discussion in therapy. Under examination, secret fears are often revealed as irrational, exaggerated, distorted. And that makes them less powerful.

Rule: a patient who is less frightened is a patient free to be more receptive to new information.


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