I heard an interview of Dan Ariely on BBC Business that covered one of my favorite behavioral science topics – motivated reasoning. His point in this interview was that if something is clearly 100% likely (i.e. true), then we have a tough time convincing ourselves through motivated reasoning. But if it is even 99% likely (i.e. probably true), we can hope for the 1%. We can even convince ourselves that the 1% WILL happen. That it IS true.
For example, why do we still think the free market always accurately prices the value of assets, despite the fact that we get booms and busts all the time (dotcom, real estate, banks . . .)? Even though we have a ton of evidence against it, we cling to the hope that it is “different this time” because we really really want it to be. This is classic motivated reasoning. All we need is a 1% chance that something is true and we can convince ourselves. The slot machine will hit three cherries today. My favorite basketball team will come back from 15 points down with one minute to go. My abusive spouse will come to his/her senses. I can stop drinking any time I want.
Ariely made an analogy that I thought was hysterical (definitely better than the ones I listed above). Imagine you are at a public pool and there are a bunch of kids swimming. What is the chance that none of them has peed in the pool in the past few hours? NONE of them? Probably close to zero. But we can cling to that 1% because we really want to use the pool. It is HOT out here and the refreshing water would be great.
But we wouldn’t go in to the pool if the chance was 100%. Think about if you saw one of the kids standing on the edge of the pool and taking a leak right into it. Would you go in for the rest of the day? Just the thought of that could keep you out for a week. Deep down, you know that this going on every day in a less obvious way. But still we cling to the 1%. This is what we are doing with free markets, politics, food safety, climate change, and on and on. If there is even a small chance that the good outcome will come true, we use our motivated reasoning to convince ourselves that it will.