Motivated reasoning


Previously, I have written about watch collectors’ addiction to both buying new watches, and social media… and how we could benefit from reducing our dopamine dependance. In this post, although related, I wanted to share some brief thoughts around motivated reasoning and how it impacts our thoughts and behaviour as collectors on Instagram.

Suppose you walk into a shady neighbourhood and get mugged… if this happens consistently, the part of your brain that generates plans like “walk through shady neighbourhood” ought to be downgraded in your brain’s decision-making algorithm. The thing that reinforces this learning, is of course, conditioning. Getting mugged is not an ideal experience, so over time you’d see: Plan → higher hedonic state (conditioned on current state) → do plan more (or vice versa). Hold that thought for a moment.

A while back, this guy Wolfram Schultz did some experiments on monkeys, while measuring the activity of dopamine neurons in the midbrain. Schultz found (among other things) three intriguing results:

  1. When he gave the monkeys juice at an unexpected time, they experienced a burst of dopamine.
  2. After Schultz trained the monkeys to expect some juice immediately following a light flash, there was a burst of dopamine at the flash of the light, not at the juice.
  3. When Schultz then flashed the light but omitted the usual dose of juice, there was negative dopamine release (compared to baseline) at the time when juice would have been delivered.

So now, let us try linking the two threads together. As watch collectors, I argued that we experience dopamine release from both buying a watch, and also posting it on social media – to receive the positive reinforcement that comes with that practice. Over time, we would expect that posting any (new) watch on social media would result in the release of dopamine, just like the monkeys feeling the dopamine release at the flash of light (the equivalent to posting on social media).

At what point would we expect the third finding to apply to watch collectors sharing on social media (if at all)? To recap the reasoning in this analogy; first we’d get happy buying a watch. Next we got into social media and began to experience the dopamine due to the associated feedback loop that comes with a new watch. Finally, the question remains: would it be the case, that collectors who then don’t receive the expected (positive) feedback, would in fact experience a negative dopamine release? In this case, then, wouldn’t it make sense for collectors to quit social media altogether?

Anyway, back to the shady neighbourhood we go… now suppose you see a mugger coming up towards you, and your visual cortex processes the sensory signals and decides “Oh f**k, here comes a mugger”. This means you have to try and fight or run away… either way, it ruins your day. That is actually lower-than-expected hedonic state – If your visual cortex was fundamentally a reinforcement learner, it would learn not to recognise muggers (and then you’d always get mugged). So this means the visual cortex (and likely lots of other sensory regions) do not do hedonic reinforcement learning in the same way.

So there are two types of brain region: fundamentally behavioural (which hedonic reinforcement learning makes better), and fundamentally epistemic (which hedonic reinforcement learning would make worse, so they don’t do it). It is, however, a fuzzy distinction.

Suppose that out of the corner of your eye, you see a a large hooded figure. Is it a mugger? To find out, you’d have to turn your head. Turning your head is apparently a good idea and you should definitely do so. The problem is, this will involve a decent chance that you see a mugger… and then as we said before, your day gets ruined. Turning your head to have a look is a behaviour and not a theory, but it’s a pretty epistemic behaviour; Do you do it or not?

In this situation most people would turn their head right? This feels like a lot of day to day problems people have in life… you have to clean your shed, but you can’t be bothered, so you stop going to the shed, and you avoid that section to put it off… and so, the shed situation just doesn’t fix itself at all.

Motivated reasoning is the tendency for people to believe comfortable lies, like “I don’t post on social media for external validation, I actually post to connect with the community of like-minded individuals.” In this model, it’s got to be what happens when you try to run epistemics on partly-reinforceable architecture. Truly understanding why you post on social media involves a lot of behaviours analogous to head-turning: seeking knowledge about psychology, understanding our own motivations better, and so on. It also involves purely epistemic behaviours, like deciding how hard to update on each contrary finding, or whether or not to make excuses.

Maybe thinking about our own motivators – like cleaning the shed – is such a novel modality that the relevant brain networks get placed kind of randomly on a bunch of different architectures, and some of them are reinforceable and others aren’t. Or maybe evolution deliberately put some of these algorithms on reinforceable architecture in order to keep people happy and conformist. 

At this point I realise this may all sound like gobbledegook – so I’ll leave you with some simplified parting thoughts instead! I wrote all of this, questioning my own reasoning when it comes to social media. This too, has evolved over time. In the beginning, it was chasing dopamine by reaching certain follower milestones… and as that grew, I had set a goal of 10k – solely to be able to add swipe-up links to stories. When I got to 8k, however, Instagram added the ability to add links to stories for everyone, and rendered my 10k goal irrelevant. Since then, I stopped caring about follower count, and tried to focus on creativity in the photography, and usefulness in stories. The inspiration sort of died after a while, and all that was left, was the engagement.

I stopped sharing new watches, because I tried to consciously mitigate against the effect described by the monkey experiment above… and truthfully, I think it worked well for me. So all that remains is the banter, the friendships and the ability to connect with like-minded folks around the world… and that’s enough to keep me opening the app. Or at least, that’s what I tell myself! The takeaway: It is worth taking the time to figure out what keeps you coming back, what motivates you to post anything, and how this impacts your state of mind… if nothing else, you’ll probably understand yourself and your thought processes better, and that can’t be a bad thing!

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