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John Elster (2007) calls this “countermotivated inference,” but that does not indicate
the driver. John Stuart Mill (1843) also talked about it in
System of Logic
, although he did
not give it a name. Philosopher Alfred Mele (2001) called it “twisted self-deception,” in
which you are using motivated inference to trick yourself into believing something, but it is
twisted because it makes you less happy. The originator of the idea, according to Elster, was
French fable writer Jean de la Fontaine, who said that people naturally believe both what
they want and what they fear. Here are some examples:
Relationships: When social psychologist Dave Nussbaum first told me about this
concept, my sons were teenagers. One kind of fear-driven inference happens
naturally to parents, particularly once children are out in the world and you don’t
always know what they are doing. If you haven’t heard from them in a while or if
they are late one day, it is natural to start thinking that something bad has
happened. You don’t have any evidence, but you can’t help thinking about it.
Medicine: Hypochondriacs became much more concerned than they should be
when they think they have a particular disease, especially an unusual one that is
only read about in medical textbooks.
Politics: Fear-driven inference comes along in conspiracy theories, when people
convince themselves that something really horrible is happening because they are
afraid that it is.
Business: Panics are the flipside of bubbles. In a bubble you think that things are
much better than they really are, but in a panic you can move to the other extreme
where you think that it is the end of the economy, as in 2008 when some people
were saying that the capitalist system was collapsing.
Research: Around the time I first heard of fear-driven inference, I had submitted a
book proposal to MIT Press and I still had not heard back from the editor after a
few weeks. I have published seven books with MIT Press, so I should have had
some reason for confidence, but I kept thinking that the editor hated this book and
he was not going to want to publish it. I had no evidence for that, but fear-driven
inference got me thinking that way until the encouraging email response finally
Religion: If you are afraid of death and of a vengeful God, then the sheer fear can
make it seem more plausible to you that there is such a God.
Psychological mechanisms
What is happening in fear-driven inference is a feedback loop where what you take to be the
evidence for the negative belief is that you feel bad. I call that a “gut overreaction,” because
you are overreacting to your gut feeling. The same happens in motivated inference when
you have a positive gut overreaction. In a new romance, you think that your lover is
wonderful and that generates good feelings, which produce more evidence that your lover is