George Zimmerman: A Case Study in Motivated Reasoning

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George Zimmerman was found not guilty of murdering Trayvon Martin. For many, including myself, this is a fact that is hard to swallow. Yet considering the broad scope of Florida’s state laws governing self-defense, we should not be surprised by the verdict.

Why do so many people feel that Zimmerman is guilty? Because they want to hold him accountable. A large body of psychological research has found evidence that people engage in a phenomenon called “motivated reasoning.” Instead of looking at a body of evidence and then reaching a conclusion based on facts, people often have a conclusion they want to reach and change the facts to fit that goal. People “wanted” Zimmerman to be guilty, and so they fit the facts of the case to that conclusion.

Many rejected the verdict because they wanted the jury to find him guilty. When it didn’t, they assumed the jury got it wrong. We see what we want to see, and we ignore evidence that gets in our way.

Motivated reasoning has been at the core of this case from the start. Ironically, Zimmerman has quoted a passage from James Loewen’s "Lies My Teacher Told Me," which says, “People have a right to their own opinions, but not to their own facts. Evidence must be located, not created, and opinions not backed by evidence cannot be given much weight.” This quote exemplifies the problems of motivated reasoning in this case: Zimmerman concluded that Martin was suspicious without any evidence, and then found facts (e.g., Martin wearing a hoodie) to back up his foregone conclusion.

But this display of motivated reasoning has distracted us from the bigger picture: it puts the focus on Zimmerman, when we should be focused on the law. Yet Zimmerman is only one part of the system that failed Trayvon Martin. Yes, Zimmerman shouldn’t have stalked Martin based on his race. Yes, Zimmerman shouldn’t have continued to follow Martin when the police told him not to. Yes, Zimmerman shouldn’t have engaged Martin in a fight that eventually led to the young man’s death. Zimmerman’s actions were problematic at best, and malicious at worst. But the jury found no compelling evidence that he did not act in accordance with the law.

It’s psychologically easier for us to blame the jury than it is for us to blame the law. Research suggests that we find it aversive to recognize failures within our own system. We don’t want to see the flaws with our government, so we justify and bolster the status quo—even when it fails and disadvantages us. In this case, both lawmakers and citizens alike need to try to overcome this predilection, because recognizing that a law is unfair is the first step to fixing it.

Let’s not make the same mistake that Zimmerman did and find facts to support our conclusions. In this case, the facts are that George Zimmerman is not guilty, at least in a legal sense. It’s Florida’s laws that are guilty and need to be changed.

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