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Inferred Justification

Ronald Reagan once remarked that “the trouble with our liberal friends is not that they are ignorant, but that they know so much that isn’t so.”

“…our interviews revealed an interesting and creative reasoning style that we call inferred justification: recursively inventing the causal links necessary to justify a favored politician’s action. Inferred justification operates as a backward chain of reasoning that justifies the favored opinion by assuming the causal evidence that would support it. As with the situational heuristics described above, respondents begin with the situation and then ask themselves what must be true about the world for the situation to hold. People who displayed inferred justification assumed that since a politician they trusted had begun this war, there must be a good reason for it. Moreover, as the 9/11 attacks were the most visible foreign policy event of recent years, they assumed 9/11 was the reason for the war and actively resisted information suggesting otherwise. ”


One of the most curious aspects of the 2004 presidential election was the strength and resilience of the belief among many Americans that Saddam Hussein was linked to the terrorist attacks of September 11. Scholars have suggested that this belief was the result of a campaign of false information and innuendo from the Bush administration. We call this the information environment explanation. Using a technique of “challenge interviews” on a sample of voters who reported believing in a link between Saddam and 9/11, we propose instead a social psychological explanation for the belief in this link. We identify a number of social psychological mechanisms voters use to maintain false beliefs in the face of disconfirming information, and we show that for a subset of voters the main reason to believe in the link was that it made sense of the administration’s decision to go to war against Iraq. We call this inferred justification: for these voters, the fact of the war led to a search for a justification for it, which led them to infer the existence of ties between Iraq and 9/11.

Source: “There Must Be a Reason”: Osama, Saddam, and Inferred Justification

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