The processes of motivated reasoning are a type of inferred justification strategy which is used to mitigate cognitive dissonance. When people form and cling to false beliefs despite overwhelming evidence, the phenomenon is labeled “motivated reasoning”. In other words, “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”. This is “a form of implicit emotion regulation in which the brain converges on judgments that minimize negative and maximize positive affect states associated with threat to or attainment of motives”
Some time around 1970, Ford Motor Company in Louisville, Ky initiated a program to hire hard core unemployable people to work as assembly operators. At that time I was a General Foreman in production assembly. Because of the dramatic challenges of integrating the hard core unemployable into the existing culture, a series of training sessions were conducted to better equip management employees. It was in one of those sessions that I encountered a life altering experience.
There were approximately 40-50 salaried employees participating in the training session. We were subjected to a variety of lectures and exercises designed to help us understand and deal with the cultural differences we would face as we managed what seemed to be unmanageable people. One particular exercise was life-altering for me.
The instructor told us we would be doing a problem solving exercise. We could not take notes but were to listen carefully to the problem and determine individually the correct answer. The problem was simple enough. It involved the sale of a mule between two farmers. There were three or four purchases and repurchases for different prices. The problem to be solved was who finally owned the mule and how much did the seller profit?
Given a few moments to think about our answers, the instructor asked us to share our answers. I thought that was unnecessary since it was such simple problem and I had determined the correct answer almost immediately. Expecting that everyone else would have the same answer, I was surprised that there were four or five different answers. At that point I was feeling some satisfaction in having the correct answer.
Next we were instructed to form groups based on our answers. Four or five groups emerged. The number of people in the groups varied from 10-12, 7-8, etc and my group with 4. Again, I was a bit surprised how few had gotten the answer correct. Once we were grouped, the instructor told us to discuss our answer within our group. Following that discussion, we were told that we could change groups if we so desired. The largest group gained some members, one of whom was from my group.
The next step involved each group sending a representative to the other groups to convince them that their answer was correct. Following some passionate argument and pleas, once again we were given the opportunity to change our answer and join the agreeing group. I was pleased that none of my group departed but mystified that none joined us.
The final step involved each group sending a representative to work out their answer in writing on the white board. I represented our group and was pleased at how clearly I was able illustrated the correct answer. Confident that people would finally realize how mistaken they were, I welcomed the final opportunity for people to change their minds and join my group.
I watched with disappointment as another of my group departed for the largest group. No one joined my group. There were now three groups. My group with myself and one other, a second group with 4-5 people and the large group with everyone else. At this point, it is important to understand how invested I had become in the exercise. My mind was racing and my emotions were deepening. I was truly flabbergasted at the results of the exercise. It had become personal.
To conclude the exercise, the instructor chose two people to represent the farmers and provided money for the transaction. I should not have been surprised that he chose me to be one of the farmers. To assure that there would be no question about the outcome, we methodically acted out the transactions. Carefully we passed the money with each exchange. At the conclusion, I possessed the money and was asked to count it for everyone to see. Convinced I had calculated the answer correctly, I gladly complied.
WRONG! I was wrong. There was no doubt.
The impact of that moment for me cannot be overstated. I was embarrassed and shamed. My arrogance and self-righteousness were exposed. How could I have been so deaf and blind? Any thought of humble acceptance escaped me. Thankfully the obvious outcome spared me the unfamiliar words: “I was wrong”. Almost immediately, the thought crossed my mind, “If I was wrong about this, what else am I wrong about?
Perhaps, for the first time in my life, I came to grips with the possibility that I could be wrong. That experience altered the lens through which I view myself and the world around me for the rest of my life. For that reason the subject of echo chambers has attracted my attention. It is within the confines of echo chambers that we are shielded from the possibility of being wrong and subject to all the perils of such.