Motivated Tactician


The term ‘motivated tacticians‘ is used in social psychology to describe a human shifting from quick and dirty cognitively economical tactics to more thoughtful, thorough strategies when processing information depending on their type and degree of motivation. This idea has been used to explain why people use stereotyping, biases, and categorization in some situations and more analytical thinking in others. Because of the empirical evidence and robust nature, the concept is now a preferred theory of human social perception.

After much research on categorization, and other cognitive shortcuts, psychologists began to describe human beings as cognitive misers (i.e. they use a lot of mental shortcuts); which explains that a need to conserve mental resources causes people to use shortcuts to thinking about stimuli, instead of motivations and urges influencing the way humans think about their world.

Stereotypes and heuristics (such as confirmation bias, the idea that people will seek out information to prove themselves right and avoid information that would prove previous held beliefs as wrong) were used as evidence of the economic nature of human thinking. Current research does not deny that people will be cognitively miserly in certain situations, but takes into account that thorough analytic thought does occur in other situations. Using this perspective, researchers have begun to describe human beings as motivated tacticians who are tactical about how much cognitive resources will be used depending on the individual’s intent and motivation.

Because of the complex nature of the world and the occasional need for quick thinking, it would be detrimental for a person to be methodical about everything he comes into contact with; while other situations require more focus and attention. Considering human beings as motivated tacticians has become popular because it takes both situations into account. This concept also takes into account and continues to study what motivates people to use more or less mental resources when processing information about their world. Research has found that intended outcome, relevancy to the individual, culture, and affect all can influence the way a person processes information.

The most prominent explanation of motivational thinking is that the person’s desired outcome motivates him to use more or less cognitive resources while processing a situation or thing. Researchers have divided preferred outcomes into two broad categories; directional and non-directional outcomes. The preferred outcome provides the motivation for the level of processing involved. Individuals motivated by directional outcomes have the intention of accomplishing a specific goal. These goals can range from appearing smart, courageous, or likeable to affirming positive thoughts and feelings about something or someone they find likable or are close to. If someone is motivated by non-directional outcomes he/she wishes to make the most logical and clear decision. Whether a person is motivated by directional or non-directional outcomes depends on the situation and the person’s goals. Confirmation bias is an example of thought processing motivated by directional outcomes. The goal is to affirm previously held beliefs, so one will use less thorough thinking in order to reach that goal. While a person motivated to get the best education, who researches information on colleges and visit schools is motivated by a non-directional outcome. Evidence for outcome influenced motivation is illustrated by research on self-serving bias. Independent of expectancies from prior success or failure, the more personally important a success is in any given situation, the stronger is the tendency to claim responsibility for this success but to deny responsibility for failure.

Though outcome based motivation is the most prominent approach to motivated thinking, there is evidence that a person can be motivated by his/her preferred strategy of processing information; however, rather than an alternative, this idea is actually a compliment to the outcome based approach. Proponents of this approach feel that a person prefers a specific method of information processing because it usually yields the results he or she wishes to receive. This relates back to the intended outcome being the primary motivation. By ‘strategy of information processing’ it is meant whether a person makes a decision using bias, categories, or analytical thinking. Regardless of whether the method is best suited for the situation or more thorough is less important to the person than its likelihood of yielding the intended result. People feel that their preferred strategy just ‘feels right.’ What makes the heuristic or method ‘feel right’ is that the strategy accomplishes the desired goal (i.e. affirm positive beliefs of self-efficacy).

There has been research on motivated tactical thinking outside of western countries, but not much. A person’s culture can play a large role in their motivations. Nations like the US are considered individualistic cultures, while many Asian nations are considered collectivistic cultures. An individualist places importance on themselves and are motivated by individual reward and affirmations; while a collectivist conceptualizes the world as being more group or culture based. The difference in the two ways of viewing the world could affect motivation in information processing. For example, instead of being motivated by self-serving motivations, a collectivist would be motivated by more group affirming goals. Another alternative is the motivation that emotions and affect play in the way that a person processes information. Forgas (2000) has stated that conscious and non-conscious affect has been known to provide motivation for cognition and thinking. This states that current mood or can be determinant the information processing as well and thoroughness of thought. He also mentioned that achieving a desired emotion can influence the level to which information is process. However, due to the complex nature of this concept, more research is needed.

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