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Motivated Reasoning in the Public Domain: Three Variations on a Theme

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The concept of motivated reasoning describes when people’s processing of information is driven by prior motivations, such as self-preservation, social-identity threats and worldview maintenance. In the public domain, strong political and social identities shape political and moral debates. In this dissertation I present three papers that address motivated reasoning in the context of three public debates: abortion, hate speech and COVID-19 policies. The first paper examines how abortion attitudes are related to other attitudes not directly related to termination of pregnancy, testing competing ideological explanations abortion attitudes. Across three studies, data show support for the liberal and conservative explanations of abortion attitudes, but the evidence is stronger for the latter. The second paper studies how people judge an ambiguous expression as hate speech, based on the group being targeted and the person’s ideology. I found that liberals are particularly attuned to denounce an ambiguous statement as hate speech, and that the target’s perceived victimhood partially drives these effects. The third paper studies the relationship between COVID-19 related policies, partisanship and exposure to the virus. No relationship was found between the exposure to the virus and changes in policies: people keep partisan policy views, despite of pathogen threats. All studies confirm the main tenet of themotivated reasoning approach: people’s views are often not driven by rational considerations, but rather by motivations to defend their worldview and their social groups.

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