Recently on the Sunday morning news shows they did what they do best—provoke opposing sides to debate and argue the latest political crises and accompanying drama. On one particular show, Side A pointed to a recent report that described outcomes of an event with which supporters of Side B disagreed. The selected spokesperson of Side B immediately branded the report a “load of crap” and later, “a pile of garbage.” Such eloquent and stirring articulation from a national leader but that’s a topic for another day! Later the same day I read an editorial regarding the young woman who traveled to Oregon where she legally received, from a physician, a lethal amount of medication which would end her struggle with terminal cancer. The author of the editorial denounced this young woman’s action as doing God’s work and missing out on the lessons to be learned while enduring an extended and painful death.
While doing extensive work the past few years in the area of social norms marketing, we witnessed a number of cerebral gymnastics in which individuals and institutions engaged to maintain a certain opinion or position, regardless of what data may actually show. One of the most challenging and frustrating processes utilized to hang on to a particular view, in lieu of contradicting evidence, is referred to as inferred justification. This sociological phenomenon is described by scholars as a backward chain of reasoning whereby one assumes a stanch position, and then looks for evidence—accurate or inaccurate may not matter—to justify the position (Prasad et.al.). Other scholars refer to this practice as motivated reasoning, i.e. an individual is motivated to support a pre-existing belief rather than first view the evidence, then form an opinion. It’s the “Don’t confuse me with the facts” stance we’ve all encountered. We often confronted this in schools where the evidence showed that the actual behavior of students was healthier than conventional wisdom might suggest. This applied to a variety of behaviors such as alcohol and drug consumption, distracted driving habits, commitment to graduation and academic success and the rejection of bullying behavior, just to mention a few. Community members, some teachers and staff, among others, disbelieved the data in an effort to hang onto and justify pre-conceived beliefs about young people. As Paul Simon sang, “A man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.”
What’s the intended or unintended consequence of inferred justification? Certainly it squelches healthy debates and dialogue about any number of crucial topics facing us as families, churches, schools, businesses and governmental agencies. One Congressional leader stated on national television that he was so opposed to the concept of C that he couldn’t/wouldn’t even say the word. Compromise was the word he fiercely refused to say. Remember Henry Clay? He was highlighted as the Great Compromiser in my junior high school history book! The ability and willingness to seek out areas of agreement rather than proclaim differences was an attribute at one time. In our particular work in schools, relinquishing an inferred justification opinion about the habits and behaviors of young people would require the individual to rethink already established beliefs and look at youth with a clear eye.
The stifling of openness and our collective unwillingness to reconsider positions certainly contributes to governmental inefficiencies. It discourages people from walking into a church because the emphasis is often on condemnation rather than grace. It prevents educational systems from being courageous enough to elevate students’ participation to a level of shared governance.
Sociological scholars often cite a quote made by former President Ronald Regan as an example of inferred justification: “The trouble with our liberal friends is not that they are ignorant, but that they know so much of what isn’t true.” Try opening a meaningful conversation with that perspective!
Excerpts of this article taken from my book, Untapped Power: How to Harness the Unbridled Power of Our Youth.