How Motivated Cognition Impacts Information Literacy

Motivated cognition is defined as “the unconscious tendency of individuals to fit their processing of information to conclusions that suit some end or goal.”  The end goal can motivate information seeking and information processing, sometimes leading to bad decision making and ultimately poor information literacy skills. For example, if a person’s end goal is to support pre-existing beliefs, then s/he will seek out and process information that supports those beliefs. Conspiracy theorists represent an extreme example of this. But you also see it in areas such as science (e.g. climate change denial) and politics (e.g. voting). On the other hand, a person’s end goal may be to seek out accurate information, which results in better decision making and ultimately stronger information literacy skills. Librarians, of course, are a good example of people who tend to operate with accuracy goals.

In my own experience, I’ve found that students often operate with an end goal of convenience, which results in using the most conveniently available information that meets the minimum requirements of the assignment. That motivation can still unconsciously persist beyond even the best information literacy instruction. While we may call this lazy, it’s important to remember that “unconscious tendency” is key to motivated cognition. In other words, students are not necessarily self-aware of their motivations, though they are undoubtedly able to justify their actions (assignment too difficult, etc…).

How can we address motivated cognition? I think the answer to that is a behavioral one. Firstly, if assignments consistently set an end goal that focuses on using accurate information instead of a formula of source types (e.g. 3 peer-reviewed articles, 1 book, 1 web site), students would be more likely to learn to seek out and carefully evaluate information for accuracy. That means that information literacy instruction would need to focus on critically evaluating information content rather than just focusing on source type (as we know, even peer-reviewed articles can be subject to confirmation bias). Secondly, exercises that promote self-awareness of motivated cognition could go a long way toward helping students become more conscious of their own information seeking and information processing goals. Teaching exercises borrowed from psychology instruction can help students recognize their own motivated reasoning in action, and guided inquiry exercises built on Kulthau’s model of the Information Search Process (ISP) can be used to achieve self-awareness in terms of information seeking.

Ultimately, being information literate is reliant upon using accuracy goals for information seeking and information processing. Motivated cognition provides an explanation of why that doesn’t always happen. Emotions affect cognition, and not always in a good way. One of the outcomes of higher education should be to make students self-aware of that and provide them with plenty of opportunities to exercise accuracy goals. Exercising accuracy goals will lead to stronger information literacy skills.



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