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believe. My favorite example is Muammar Gaddafi just before he was brought down, who
said, “I have millions of supporters including God.” This is a motivated inference – he did
not have much evidence that God was on his side, but he really wanted to believe that.
However, motivated inference happens to all of us all of the time:
Relationships: I have heard it said that the difference between men and women when
they get married is that women believe their husbands will change and men believe their
wives will not change, and they are both wrong. Either case is clearly a motivated
inference, because people have a rosy view of the relationship that is usually not directly
based on reality.
Medicine: People have medical problems and they think these are going to go away. I
know somebody who walked around with a lump under his arm for a year before he got
it checked out; it turned out to be a melanoma.
Politics: We think a leader can bring us hope and change. Motivated inference is
rampant concerning climate change, for instance, even though the evidence is strongly
in favor of global warming being caused by human actions.
Economic bubbles: Part of what happens in economic bubbles is the motivation to
believe that stocks can only keep on going up or that this time is not like all the others.
You would think that people in business would learn from the past that there is a bubble
and a crash about every 10 or 20 years.
Sports: People get themselves pumped up to think that they are going to play well today.
This is a case where a positive illusion might be helpful. If you think that you are going
to play well, maybe you will, but it is not based on much in the way of evidence.
Research: When I start a new project, I often start out thinking that the output will be
one of the best papers I ever wrote and it will be published in a top journal. Only later
when it appears in the
Albanian Journal of Irreproducible Speculations
do I realize that
it was not as good as some of the others I have written.
Religion: You may have a motivated inference to think that there is a God who is going
to look after you, which is very reassuring but not always based on much evidence.
Fear-driven inference
Fear-driven inference is where you believe something not because it makes you feel good,
but because it makes you feel bad. One classic case is Othello. In Shakespeare’s play,
Othello is in love with his wife Desdemona, but Iago plants little bits of evidence that
suggest Desdemona is unfaithful. Clearly, Othello is motivated to think that his wife is
faithful to him, but he starts to worry about the evidence until he becomes convinced that
Iago was right. So he ends up believing something that he is motivated not to believe, but he
cannot help himself believing it because it worries him so much.