Four Ways to Avoid the Pitfalls of Motivated Moral Reasoning

By Brett Beasley

Our inner "lawyer" often manipulates our ethical decision-making. Here’s how you can access your inner “judge.”


scales of justice


Your friend sends you a link to an online intelligence test. "This test is great," she promises. "It's very accurate. It turns out I'm in the top 20%!" When you take the test, however, you get an unwelcome result. The test says you're not in the top 20% or even the top 50%. You decide to subject the test to a bit more scrutiny. The questions weren't structured right, you think. And a lot of the wording was fuzzy. Some parts didn't even make sense. Then you find another online test and take it. This one says you're in the top 10%. You send an email back to your friend providing a link to the second test. “Take this one,” you say, “it’s much more accurate.”

Motivated Reasoning

Psychologists have used scenarios like this one to illustrate what they call motivated reasoning. Motivated reasoning is our tendency to use reasoning not to discover what's really true but to justify—both to ourselves and to others—the conclusion we prefer, or have already made. Studies have repeatedly shown that we tend to trust intelligence tests that tell us we are smart while we mistrust those that tell us we are not as intelligent as we thought.

Motivated reasoning appears in all areas of our lives. We tend to try harder to reach a conclusion we prefer, and we tend to ignore information that is inconsistent with it. Although we like to imagine ourselves like a judge who carefully and deliberately evaluates all the facts before arriving judgment, we're much more like a lawyer who finds arguments to defend our position.

This process can be especially dangerous because it often occurs subconsciously. We can maintain our belief that we came to a conclusion rationally when in fact we only used reason to construct justifications for the conclusion we preferred.

Motivated Reasoning in Business

Incentives are one common way motivated reasoning enters into business decisions. Notre Dame researchers Adam Wowak, Mike Mannor, and Kaitlin Wowak have found that when CEOs receive a large portion of their pay in the form of stock options, product safety problems and product recalls become more common.

For a real-world example, they turn to the story of former Johnson & Johnson CEO William Weldon. After the famous Tylenol recall of 1982, J&J earned a reputation for quality by prioritizing product safety above all else. But when Weldon (who received 56 percent of his pay in stock options) took over as CEO, he began cutting costs, often by laying off long time staffers and replacing them with inexperienced new hires. As a result, J&J experienced 70 product recalls in just five years. Weldon was named the “Worst CEO of 2011” by the New York Times, and stepped down as CEO of J&J in 2012.

Did Weldon and the other CEOs in the study consciously choose to create unsafe products and put consumers in harm’s way? Probably not. They simply rationalized one risky decision after another following their underlying motivation to raise the price of the company’s stock. In the long term, these choices added up to increased danger for customers, product recalls, and long-term damage to their company’s reputation.

Four Ways to Control Motivated Reasoning

Motivated reasoning happens all the time, and we can never fully eradicate it. But we can recognize it and guard against its worst effects. Use these guidelines as a way to help quiet your inner lawyer and access your inner judge.

Use the "Front Page" Test

Studies have shown that when we expect our decisions to be made public we are more circumspect. Ask yourself, "Would I be comfortable having this choice published on the front page of a local newspaper?" Doing so provides an opportunity to step back from the conditions that may induce motivated reasoning and engage in more critical thinking.

Don’t Go It Alone

While it is difficult to notice motivated reasoning in ourselves, we can much more easily recognize it in others. Surround yourself with the voices of those you trust, and make sure you’re prepared to listen and acknowledge your limitations. You can even make it someone's job to voice dissent. If you're surrounded only by "yes men" it can be all too easy for motivated reasoning to take over.

Avoid Ambiguity

Motivated reasoning becomes more likely when the rules are fuzzy or vague. Rely on accepted standards and definitions of ethical behavior, and make sure that your principles are clear enough for employees to understand what they mean in practice. In ethics training, make sure to use scenarios and stories to show what ethical behavior looks like. If your values or principles are too general, they may provide convenient justifications for unethical behavior instead of guarding against it.

Stay Humble

In addition to intelligence tests, research suggests that we’re touchy about receiving any feedback we don’t agree with. One study found that when participants received negative feedback about their leadership qualities they were likely to use racial stereotypes to dismiss the person giving the feedback. The next time you receive feedback you’d rather ignore, slow down, pay attention, and consider how the feedback could help you grow as a person and as a leader.



Use this behavioral science one-sheet, produced in partnership with Ethical Systems, to connect this concept to your organization's daily workflow and organizational culture. We have added a creative commons license to allow you and your organization to use these one-sheets in a variety of ways, including: handouts to team members, posting in common areas, including in new-hire packages, incorporating into training seminars, executive coaching programs, etc.

Motivated Reasoning Motivated Reasoning


Further Reading

Ditto, P. H., Pizarro, D. A., & Tannenbaum, D. (2009). Motivated moral reasoning. Psychology of Learning and Motivation, 50, 307-338.

Kunda, Z. (1990). The case for motivated reasoning. Psychological Bulletin, 108(3), 480.

Key Points

Motivated reasoning is one of the main reasons good people make unethical choices.

Motivated reasoning occurs when we use reasoning not to discover what's really true but to justify the conclusion we prefer.

You can avoid motivated reasoning by imagining your decisions will be made public or by bringing others into your decision-making process.

Motivated reasoning can run wild when the rules are fuzzy or vague.

Recognizing motivated reasoning at work can help us become more humble and make us more open to receiving feedback.

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