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Has Motivated Reasoning Changed the Dynamics of Politics and Administration?

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Earl Mathers
May 21, 2019

In the long run, the public interest depends on private virtue. – James Q. Wilson

The important question in this age of polarization and seemingly intractable policy differences is how to deal with circumstances where the most impactful decision is not always politically acceptable.  Conversely, there are also those situations where scarce resources are deployed in a manner that benefits a relatively small constituency or simply reinforces invalid assumptions. 

Generally, motivated reasoning is a form of reasoning that develops arguments and evaluates information in a biased manner leading to predetermined conclusions. It is widely accepted that all people are biased in certain ways for a variety of reasons and acceding to the influence of preconceived notions of reality is not always intentional. However, best practices in public administration promote objectivity in decision-making and reinforce the notion that the greater public interest takes precedence over preordained outcomes which are not evidence-based.

Unfortunately, it does appear that motivated reasoning may at times thwart actions in the public interest because those actions are not consistent with preconceived notions of reality. The influence of interest groups, either in support or in opposition of certain policies has been the subject of extensive research and yet, unsavory sausage continues to be made.

There are those times in which managers recognize the need for a particular course of action that has minimal political or public support.  Indeed, part of the manager’s job is to present compelling evidence to the governing board and the public in order to gain sufficient support for a plan that is in a large constituency’s interests. 

A question of great importance to public sector managers is how to overcome the tendency in the political world for the adoption of ineffective or even detrimental policies. As many have pointed out in the present state of political affairs, lack of civility among opposing groups and unwillingness to openly consider other points of view make it difficult to devise good solutions to complex problems.  The prevalence of motivated reasoning across the political spectrum exacerbates the problem and makes it even more difficult to execute good policy choices. 

Devising solutions that will enable governments at all levels to promote the public good, while acknowledging that these solutions may be elusive, is of paramount importance and, unfortunately, is not as simple as merely presenting the facts.

Overcoming Motivated Reasoning

There are no universal solutions to the problem of fashioning a decision making process that is more objective and equitable. The following guidelines may well be helpful in terms of overcoming anticipated resistance.

  1. Use tested ideas and best practices from other places, or ideas that have been successfully implemented by people that have similar ideological leanings. If your board is very conservative the “liberal” ideas from the capital may not resonate. Therefore, ideas that have worked in areas that are politically similar are likely to be more acceptable. Where possible, implement trial programs that are scalable in order to avoid the potential of major financial setbacks associated with failed initiatives.

  2. Create buy-in among board members that are willing to champion key initiatives. Consider assigning research and analytical work to a talented staffer who can shape and reinforce the message in a way that conforms as much as possible to prevailing political sentiments. As the manager, you may not have the time to do this yourself. This is not disingenuous and the solution can be refined through this process.

  3. Emphasize shared accountability for policy implementation. Failing to address community concerns or misdirecting scarce resources creates negative scrutiny for both administrators and politicians.  Successful policy implementation does the opposite. Always give credit to the political leaders who need ongoing constituent support.

  4. Try to link new initiatives to broader policy objectives that have clear political support and may be viewed as part of a broader legacy. Help to shape the policy narrative in a way that is clear and relatively uncomplicated. Politicians need to have a clear response for citizens who may not be fully informed of underlying conditions.

  5. Evaluate anticipated results as holistically as possible and demonstrate how those benefits extend to key constituencies. At the same time, it is hazardous to oversell programs or avoid realistic assessments of risk, particularly if manager tenure is a consideration.

  6. Increase your own self-awareness and remember to not take things personally when there is resistance to ideas that you are strongly committed to. The suggestion is not that managers compromise their values and embrace a course of action that is suboptimal or destined to fail. It is an acknowledgement that well informed managers, in their attempts to persuade, often encounter situations that test both their patience and resolve.

  7. Communicate a consistent message clearly and enthusiastically. For the manager, conveying a similar message repeatedly can be frustrating, but that persistence can yield benefits. It is sometimes useful to call upon the support of other proponents that are well regarded by members of the elected body and may be able to elucidate program benefits in a slightly different way. Sometimes having the right messenger makes all the difference.

This article was not intended to be an empirical study, but I do hope that it stimulates thought and discussion on this topic. We need to be as pragmatic and empathetic as possible in dealing with those with whom we disagree, even when our confidence in our point of view is high.

Developing consensus around issues through the open exchange of information may have a positive effect on public administration and ultimately, on American Democracy. The rational approach will not work on all of the people all of the time for various reasons.  However, accepting outcomes driven by motivated reasoning impassively diminishes the value of the manager and the profession.


Author: Earl Mathers is the County Manager in Gaston County, North Carolina.  He has worked in public and non-profit management for more than thirty-five years domestically and internationally. His publications include numerous articles in public administration journals.  Earl and his wife Kallie have four children and seven grandchildren.

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