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Motivated Reasoning in Technical Writing

Posted by
Anastasia in Technical Writing on 4/26/20194 min read

Brain

Technical writers perform different tasks in different spheres. One might think that their only job is creating instructions, but this can't be further from the truth. Technical writing is many things, white papers and scientific articles among them. Trying to foresee the audience's reaction is obligatory with such texts. And, mind you, it can be quite unpredictable. Today, we will talk about motivated reasoning, a phenomenon that can become the downfall of your writing.

How Brain Understands Text

If we take a look at the information theory proposed by Claude Shannon (an American mathematician), and later adopted by linguists, we can understand where all this misunderstanding is coming from.

Long story short - communication can be treated like an information flow passing from the author (encoder) to the reader (decoder) through an information channel (a technical document in our case).

And, how the information is decoded, i.e. understood by the readers, depends on the noise inside the communication channel. The noise is comprised of things like education, political views, upbringing, culture, etc.

The final message gets so distorted sometimes that for readers it conveys the opposite meaning compared to what the writer intended to say.

Motivated Reasoning is Part of our Culture

Woman typing something

Motivated reasoning is also a noise inside the information channel. It has to do with human psychology more than with anything else. Modern information warfare strategies made people cautious and skeptical about any data they consume. We hear about fake news all the time and, this is kind of a disturbing thing to experience since there's often no way of telling if any given text contains true facts. This is how most of the bias is born.

Bad reputation of a company is also a sure source of bias. Once your reputation is ruined it is extremely hard to gain it back. Readers who don't have trust in a company, a field or a brand are prone to bias.

In some cases, skepticism towards data transforms into mockery or even hostility. So, the initial message is not just doubted but denied altogether. Scientific or medical writers are faced with this quite often.

Motivated reasoning is influencing our everyday lives so much more than one might think. Here's an example - denial of ecological problems by politicians. This side of motivated reasoning is nothing short of terrifying.

How to Fight Motivated Reasoning

Man using tablet

Can technical writers fight motivated reasoning? The short answer is no. The longer answer is - you can do your best to decrease readers’ bias towards your writing. Try these steps:

  • Follow company guidelines. This includes every standard your company has starting from ethics and ending with branding. Any technical documents must comply with the company's policies. Branding is equally important; when you apply corporate branding to your documentation, it makes your technical writing documents look more reliable and professional (given that brand loyalty levels are okay and company branding was created by professional designers). In ClickHelp, for example, you can brand your online documentation portal easily or pick a ready-to-use template that fits best.
  • Stay consistent in your writing. Make sure that logic and structure are preserved throughout the whole text. Loose ends and a structural mess instantly raise red flags in readers’ minds.
  • Proofread. Twice. Or more. Correct grammar, punctuation, and spelling are very important for technical writing documents, white papers, and scientific articles. Typos in a blog article can make people angry while typos in a scientific article can make people doubt the research results. If these scientists can't write properly, how can we trust them with more complex things?

Conclusion

Human brain is still a mystery for the most part. And it is giving us hard times often through things like motivated reasoning. Motivated reasoning arose as a by-product of the reality we live in and we have nothing else to do but to adapt to the consequences now. It affects technical writing a lot, but, there are ways to mitigate the negative influence that we mentioned in this article. Let us know in the comments below what you think about motivated reasoning and the means to avoid it.

Good luck with your technical writing!
ClickHelp Team
Author, host and deliver documentation across platforms and devices

 

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