Building a Case for Relapse
I remember during one of my early attempts to quit alcohol developing an interest in research and testimonials related to ‘controlled drinking’. I had been sober around 20 months at this stage, my life was going well, and I had started my nursing training. I told myself this sudden interest in the topic was purely academic, but I was unconsciously collecting evidence to support an unspoken desire to relapse.
The more I researched the topic, the more evidence I found to support my theory that I would be able to safely use alcohol again. This was during the early days of the internet (1996) but even back then, there was plenty of websites willing to provide evidence to support almost any cause. I also had access to medical and scientific journals at my university, and if I looked at this material the right way, there did seem to be rational support for an experiment with controlled drinking.
I built a strong case for relapse so this meant that when I eventually took the plunge a few months later, I felt rationally justified – even though my gut was screaming ‘no’. I did manage some controlled drinking for a few months, but it wasn’t something I could maintain and my life began to fall apart again. So much for the evidence.
It used to feel troubled and dismayed at the way seemingly intelligent people could arrive at such different conclusions about life. Surely, if we all just calmly examined the evidence, we would all see things the ‘right’ way. It is only in recent years that I have come to see how intelligence and evidence are no guarantee of a consensus.
One way to explain why equally intelligent people can end up on different sides of a debate is motivated reasoning. When it comes to certain topics, it may not even be possible for any of us to look at the data in an unbiased way. For example, our personal sense of right/wrong gives us a bias as to where we stand on issues, and we will be more favorably inclined towards certain arguments and conclusions. This means there is going to be an unconscious motivation to find evidence to support our worldview and downplay evidence that doesn’t.
In his book ‘The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion’, the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt talks about how we reach our conclusions about life. He uses the ‘rider on an elephant’ metaphor to describe the relationship between the conscious rational mind (the rider) and the unconscious irrational mind (the elephant). The elephant is far more powerful than the rider, so the rider must learn to work with it.
Our way of seeing the world is strongly governed by our inner elephant (unfortunately, most of us feel disconnected from our elephants, so there is a lot of miscommunication.). When it comes to morality and beliefs, it is the job of the rider to promote and defend the elephant’s sense of things. This is where motivated reasoning comes in. It explains how I could convince myself that controlled drinking was possible even though there was plenty of evidence to the contrary.
How Understanding Motivated Reasoning Helps Us
It can be easy to see how motivated reasoning is used by other people, but it is harder to admit we do this ourselves. I have concluded that if I can’t understand the perspective of the other side, it is only because of my own biases. It is not good enough to console myself with the idea that those who think differently from me are ‘stupid’ or ‘evil’ because none of us are free of bias and all sides have a point to make.
So, one of the ways an understanding of motivated reasoning helps us is by making it easier to appreciate the other side in a debate. It is not intelligence our ‘goodness’ that causes us see things differently, but our experiences, culture, and maybe even our genetics. I have become far less interested in what people believe and more interested in why they believe it because there I can discover some common ground – this has made me less judgmental and more compassionate.
It is important that we are aware of how motivated reasoning can get us into trouble. There may still be a part of your thinking that is attempting to build a case for a return to addiction or other maladaptive behaviors. For example, if you go looking for evidence to support a relapse, you will surely find it, but this doesn’t change the fact that it is most likely a terrible idea.