In this series of posts, we review books that we think contain insights on how to have better conversations about abortion. So far, these books have nothing to do with pregnancy or abortion. But bear with us! We think they have something valuable to say to us about talking to, understanding or learning from people you profoundly disagree with. The first book we reviewed was Flatland: A romance of many dimensions, by Edwin Abbot Abbot. This time around, we review Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen’s most famous novel
Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen, is one of my favourite novels, so I couldn’t let this series of blog posts go too far without recommending that those who want to change people’s minds about abortion via constructive conversations read this book. There are so many angles to the book and it is well worth reading on its own merits. However, the particular reason I think it’s a great read for those who are passionate about campaigning on any issue, is because the book does a fantastic job of showing the impacts of a psychological phenomenon called Motivated Reasoning. Even though psychologists didn’t formally define or study Motivated Reasoning until the 20th century, the tendency to see the world as we wish it to be, rather than as it really is, has been understood since ancient times, and crops up in folk wisdom and literature throughout history.
Pride and Prejudice explores the theme of Motivated Reasoning right through the book. There are many instances of characters drawing conclusions that they wish to be true, rather than drawing conclusions that are likely to be true based on the evidence. At one point, Mr Bennett, the father of the heroine Elizabeth, assures Elizabeth that wherever she and her sister Jane are known “you must be respected and valued; and you will not appear to less advantage for having a couple of—or I may say, three—very silly sisters”. This was a ridiculously naive position to take, because women in early 19th century Britain were very much judged on the basis of the actions of their close family. Mr Bennett knew this, and yet he really believed it would not happen in the case of his particular daughters, not because there was any evidence for this belief, but because it’s what he wanted to believe.
Another example of motivated reasoning is when the hero of the novel, Mr Darcy, goes so far as to assure Elizabeth that while he wishes to think that Jane just isn’t that into his friend Charles Bingley, he’s still totally confident in his ability to judge whether or not that really is the case:
That I was desirous of believing her indifferent is certain—but I will venture to say that my investigation and decisions are not usually influenced by my hopes or fears. I did not believe her to be indifferent because I wished it; I believed it on impartial conviction, as truly as I wished it in reason.
Spoiler alert: Darcy got it hopelessly wrong; Jane was in fact very much into Bingley, and Darcy finally comes to realise and admit this fact, eventually going so far as to say his interfering in Bingley and Jane’s relationship was “absurd and impertinent”. Jane Austen lays it on pretty thick here: even when Darcy was well aware of the possibility of his own desires and motivations steering him wrong, he was unable to escape them steering him wrong.
The best demonstration of how you can completely change your mind about something once you stop wanting it to be true, however, comes in Chapters 33 and 34. Chapter 33 is a letter from Darcy to Elizabeth, split into two parts. In the first half of the letter, Darcy explains why he tried to break Jane and Bingley up. Elizabeth reads through this whole part of the letter in disgust, finding all sorts of reasons why he was arrogant and wrong in everything he thought and did, and dismisses his entire explanation as insolent and proud. In the second half of the letter, she learns things about Darcy that she never knew, and realises she has been very unfair in how she judged and behaved towards him. At that point, she rereads the first half of the letter – and it’s like reading a different letter. Suddenly, all the points he’s making seem reasonable. Suddenly, she’s reminded of other people, people she likes and respects, who had made similar points to her, and she didn’t dismiss them the way she had just dismissed Darcy’s letter. She starts re-interpreting things other people said and did in a whole new light. She is no longer motivated to interpret anything and everything as showing how evil Darcy is – and as a result, she is able to see the truth.
I’ve learned the hard way that if I allow myself to be guided by what I want to be true, I’m likely to make mistakes – sometimes very big ones. With this in mind, I try to read Chapters 33 and 34 of Pride and Prejudice at least once a year, because it’s a great reminder of how easy it is to fall prey to motivated reasoning (I’m not necessarily recommending that anyone else do so; it’s just something I find helpful). I try to remind myself that feeling strongly about a person or an issue in advance is often a key ingredient in drawing conclusions that are completely wrong, and if I’d felt differently about the person or issue beforehand I could reach very different conclusions, based on the exact same evidence. Given how strongly I feel about abortion, it’s very important that I bear this in mind whenever I try to engage with someone on this topic.
In a similar vein, I find it very helpful to recall Chapter 34 of Pride and Prejudice whenever I’m talking to someone who disagrees with me on a topic such as abortion and I feel that they are dealing with me very unfairly. It’s very hard when someone seems to be willfully misinterpreting everything I say, and reading it in the worst possible light, when all I’m trying to do is engage in good faith. I find those conversations go best when I really try to remember that what the other person is doing is very normal, even though it’s so frustrating. The other person wants to believe that I’m wrong, or evil, or stupid, and so they’re going to interpret what I say and do in that light. The best thing I can do in this situation is try to change their motivation. Making better and better arguments as to why I’m right and they’re wrong won’t help much – but changing their mind about me might help them be less motivated to think I’m wrong about everything. This is where being kind, respectful, warm and friendly pays off. If we can make the person change their minds about who we are, we are better able to change their minds about what we’re saying.
One final point: motivated reasoning is really, really hard to avoid. For instance, while rereading Pride and Prejudice before writing this blog post, I found more and more examples of motivated reasoning that I hadn’t noticed before – and then I realised I was motivated to find these examples in the text, so it was no surprise that I started noticing them everywhere. Just “watching out” for and trying to avoid motivated reasoning is a pretty poor strategy because it’s so engrained in us. In contrast, the best way to avoid motivated reasoning is to do what Elizabeth and Darcy did – find someone with whom you disagree, and talk it out together. Get to know the other person, and then the other person’s point of view. You’re far more likely to find truth together. This is as true today as it was in 1813.