Motivated Skepticism

Jeanne Hagenbach, CNRS, Sciences Po, CEPR, WZB and Charlotte Saucet, University Paris 1, Centre d'Economie de la Sorbonne

We experimentally study how individuals read strategically-transmitted information when they have preferences over what they will learn. Subjects play disclosure games in which Receivers should interpret messages skeptically. We vary whether the state that Senders communicate about is ego-relevant or neutral for Receivers, and whether skeptical beliefs are aligned or not with what Receivers prefer believing. Compared to neutral settings, skepticism is significantly lower when it is self-threatening, and not enhanced when it is self-serving. These results shed light on a new channel that individuals can use to protect their beliefs in communication situations: they exercise skepticism in a motivated way, that is, in a way that depends on the desirability of the conclusions that skeptical inferences lead to. We propose two behavioral models that can generate motivated skepticism. In one model, the Receiver freely manipulates his beliefs after having made skeptical inferences. In the other, the Receiver reasons about evidence in steps and the depth of his reasoning is motivated.