science of us

The Infuriating Psychology of White Women Voting for Roy Moore

Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

By now, it should be neither surprising nor shocking to learn that 63 percent of white women who voted in the Alabama Senate race cast their vote for Republican Roy Moore. Compare that, as many did on Twitter last night, to the 98 percent of black women who voted for Moore’s opponent, Democrat Doug Jones. Many factors are at work here, but there is one psychological concept that can at least partially help us understand why so many white women voted for Moore despite the evidence that he is, in fact, the worst: It’s called motivated reasoning, the theory that our group identity shapes the way we see the world, and the information we choose to take in or reject.

To understand more about how this works, we spoke with Jonas Kaplan, a neuroscientist who studies motivated reasoning and how people change their minds, at the University of Southern California. What follows is a lightly edited and condensed version of our conversation.

Let’s start with the basics. Could you define motivated reasoning for those who might not be familiar with this concept?
All of our reasoning is motivated. We aren’t unbiased, cold computers that just objectively process information. We are living brains that have interests and motivations, and basically everything we do is colored by those interests and motivations.

And so in a case like this, I think what you’re seeing is some kind of an expression of our group interest, our tribal mind asserting itself. When you come across information that’s challenging something you believe in, that’s threatening, especially if that belief is very important to you, if it has to do with your self, your identity. And group identity can be very important to people. If you identify as a Republican, if you’re part of a Republican community where your family, your friends all share those beliefs, and something comes along and threatens those beliefs, that can become something you experience as threatening, something you become defensive about.

And when we become defensive and threatened, we do everything we have to mitigate that stress. We rationalize, we explain away, we avoid information, we willingly try to get away from it.

Can you take me through some examples or experiments that illustrate motivated reasoning?
One of the things that I study in particular is why it’s so difficult to change our minds when we encounter new information. And there are some classic experiments in that field that show that when you’re given a piece of information — there’s a classic experiment in social psychology where people were told about this relationship between being a good firefighter and taking a lot of risk. So half the people are told, If you’re really a risk-taker then you end up being more successful as a firefighter. And so, okay, that makes sense. But the other half of the people are told the opposite, that it’s more conservative, risk-averse people who are better at being firefighters. And people believe this when you tell them this, and that’s fine.

But later, when you tell them the information wasn’t correct, that they were given false information, they still believe the original information they were told. So if you were originally told that firefighters are better when they’re risk-takers, even after being corrected, you tend to think that riskiness is associated with firefighting. Because once you have that belief in your head, you start to think about it, you start to come up with reasons, and it’s very very hard to change your mind once you believe something.

There are so many examples of this. When you start to believe something — it’s like putting on weight on your body. It’s easier to put on than it is to take off. And once you get attached to one of these beliefs, they’re very very hard to dislodge, because we build up all of our other psychology around it.

And group identification is something that I think is probably one of the reasons we even have this process — to bind us to other people. One of the things that makes us feel best is to feel like part of a community, that’s very important to us. And there were even some examples from the Roy Moore campaign that did things to try and strengthen that identity by pitting voters against outsiders, whether it’s Islam or homosexuals, or whatever it is. Just to try and strengthen that group identity, because that is really the thing they had going for them.

This is maybe a really basic question, but — how are we defining “group” here? What can that mean?
It can mean anything. It can mean any kind of community. It could be your local community, it could be your church, it could be your political party, it could be your country. It’s possible to be a member of more than one group at a time. But a political campaign, of course, is something that really primes the membership to a political party, that you are a part of this group that has a shared set of values and beliefs.

And this isn’t a partisan thing — it’s a human thing. I’m a neuroscientist, so I study what the brain does when we’re challenged. And we did a study last year on what happens in the brain when people’s political beliefs are challenged. And what we find is that the regions of the brain that support feeling and emotion correlate with the degree to which we’re willing to change our minds. So you activate these emotional brain regions — things that are involved in things like threat detection, and negative feeling — then you become much more resistant, and there’s less likelihood that you’ll change your mind.

So that’s just a basic process of being human, but it’s also a basic process of life regulation. The brain’s primary purpose is to protect us. And it has all these mechanisms for protecting us, that were maybe originally used in protecting a physical body. But now we use them to protect our psychology as well — our minds, our beliefs.

That’s partially why social identity is so important. They come with beliefs and a set of values that become part of who we think we are. And then it becomes within the circle of what the brain views as worth protecting. So if my beliefs and values are considered part of me by my brain, then it’s going to marshal the same resources of protection that it would to protect my body.

Okay. So, I do not live in Alabama, and I would not have voted for Moore, but still, I’m sure this happens to me in ways I don’t even see, because, as you say, this happens to all of us. With that in mind, is there any kind of way I can, first of all, recognize this in myself, and second of all, challenge it?
We can all recognize this in ourselves, and part of what you and I can do is to help spread information about this, and to help people recognize this and to be mindful of the way that we feel in these political conversations. And to notice when we’re becoming defensive, or when we feel our bodies reacting — our heart rate going up, that kind of thing, when we’re involved in these political discussions, and do what we can consciously to mitigate those feelings. But it’s easier said than done. I don’t think that just knowing about this is going to be enough, and we have to search for more answers.

So we’re not sure at this point how to counteract this mode of thinking.
That’s right. But one thing we can say is that, because we know that there’s a culture element to this, that we can influence each other. A change that comes from within our own social group will be more likely to influence us — though I’m skeptical it’s as simple as “white women should talk to other white women.” In this case, we have white women who are strongly identified as Republicans, and it’s the Republicanism that really binds them together, and their values, and it isn’t necessarily — if being a woman isn’t necessarily a prominent part of one’s social psychology, you may not feel like you share values with all women. You might. It could work. But it would be great if Republican white women could talk to other Republican white women, or Evangelical white women could talk to other Evangelical white women.

The Infuriating Psychology of White Women Voting for Moore