Psychologists have long known that people’s beliefs are ruled by Confirmation Bias. Confirmation Bias is a psychological phenomenon in which we are bias toward our own beliefs. For example, a Dallas Cowboys fan will be less likely to agree with the referee on a call against the Cowboys than a fan of the opposing team. Both fans suffer from Confirmation Bias. This means we require large amounts of evidence to change our mind but little to believe something that reinforces what we already believe. For example, if an archeologist discovers something that reinforces that Jesus died and rose back to life, a Christian will quickly accept it as true while someone of a different religion will require large amounts of evidence before conceding it is true – in most cases no amount of evidence will convince them. This is known as Conformation Bias.
Jonathan Haidt took this concept one level deeper. Haidt is a social psychologist, Professor of Ethical Leadership at New York University Stern School of Business. He asked another question. What determines these beliefs that come before Confirmation Bias? That is, why is the Dallas Cowboys fan a fan of the Dallas Cowboys? Well, that example may be easy to answer. Historically, psychologists have believed our beliefs are held either for emotional reasons or logical reasons. Some believe that logic must rule emotions. Others believe the two rule together with each having an equal importance. Still others believe one must follow their heart by letting emotions rule. After several scientific studies, Haidt determined there is a third cause of beliefs which is more powerful than either logic or emotion. That is intuition.
When confronted with a foul-smelling soup, many will refuse to try it. A chef may tell the person what the ingredients are and even show him a video of the preparation. However, there is little chance of convincing one to change their mind when the “gut feeling” has told them no. This holds true with ethics, politics, morality, fashion, sports and just about everything humans form an opinion on. When we are told something and our gut feeling tells us it isn’t right, our reasoning become post hoc. That means, the logic we use to reject it is after our gut feeling, or intuition, has told us something is wrong. It takes an incredible amount of evidence for us to dismiss our intuition and agree that our initial reaction was not correct. So before we even feel emotion or start to logically consider the concept, Confirmation Bias is already pushing us in one direction.
Haidt’s study went further to discover that certain words can invoke a feeling of disgust. That is, when someone is presenting a concept to us, we may reject the concept based on words used to explain it rather than any real issues with the concept itself. This often plays out in political and religious discussions. For example, someone may use the term “pro-choice” in a political discussion and something happens in the minds of conservatives that hear the term. Haidt shows how it is like smelling a foul odor. Their mind rejects the message entirely because of a term used by the speaker is objectionable. This is also common in religious discussions when someone mentions the word “sin”. The preacher has the people’s attention if he talks about love, charity, and compassion but one mention of the word sin and their minds reject the message entirely. Their decision to reject the message is not based on logic, nor emotion but rather intuition.
Our minds seem to be influenced by Confirmation Bias to such an extent that it teams up with our social instinct. Humans are social creatures and have a need for friends and human relationships. In his book, The Righteous Mind, Haidt reviews multiple scientific studies that show people are more concerned with their reputation than they are with truth. So, our use of logic becomes crucial to defending our reputation (not admitting we are wrong) rather than searching for truth.
There are two types of thinking. Those are exploratory and confirmative thinking. Exploratory looks for truth while confirmative looks to confirm already held beliefs. Haidt found the only time people use exploratory is when 1. They do not hold a belief or opinion about the matter, 2. They will be held accountable for their explanation, and 3. They do not know the preference held by the audience who will hear their report. If any of these three variables are not in place, Confirmation Bias will influence the thinking.
Many police investigations are examples of exploratory thinking. The investigative officer does not have an opinion about who committed the crime. The officer must do a report and justify their conclusions. They will be held accountable. They may have to testify in court about the investigation. The assumption is that the court does not have a preference or bias. Confirmation Bias has influenced police investigations when one of the three variables is not present. If the officer has an opinion before investigating, there is a bias. If they are not held accountable, laziness can cause a bias. If the district attorney wants to convict a specific individual, that can create a bias.
Biblical teaching seems to steer a believer away from the Confirmation Bias. Jesus taught “If anyone comes to Me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters–yes, even their own life–such a person cannot be My disciple” (Luke 14:26). This seems harsh but it addresses the conflict of the social instinct. Are we more concerned about what our family members think of us or about discovering truth? The Apostle Paul wrote, “For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified.” (1 Corinthians 2:2). In this verse Paul puts aside all desire for social relationships and physical survival. His focus is the love of truth as manifested in Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ made the bold statement “I am the truth” (John 14:6).
Confirmation Bias is a psychological term that does not appear in the Bible. Or does it? The word found in the Bible for Confirmation Bias is pride. Haidt, who is an atheist, is dumbfounded by his research which reveals the power and many manifestations of Confirmation Bias. When we label it, as the Bible does, as pride, its power should not surprise us. “The fear of the Lord is hatred of evil. Pride and arrogance and the way of evil and perverted speech I hate.” “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” “Haughty eyes and a proud heart, the lamp of the wicked, are sin.” “The pride of your heart has deceived you”. “‘Scoffer’ is the name of the arrogant, haughty man who acts with arrogant pride.” “For the Lord of hosts has a day against all that is proud and lofty, against all that is lifted up—and it shall be brought low” (Proverbs 8:13; James 4:6; Proverbs 21:4; Obadiah 1:3; Proverbs 21:24; Isaiah 2:12)
Diminishing Confirmation Bias can be done on a societal level by forming groups of people with diverse backgrounds. “Without counsel, plans go awry, But in the multitude of counselors they are established.” (Proverbs 15:22) This is done for church boards, corporate committees, and legislative bodies. Everyone has their own struggle with Confirmation Bias. The diverse backgrounds help to prevent everyone seeing issues the same way and thus minimizes the impact of Confirmation Bias. 12-step recovery programs have 12 traditions they use to govern their groups. The second tradition reads, “For our group purpose there is but one ultimate authority—a loving God as He may express Himself in our group conscience. Our leaders are but trusted servants; they do not govern.” The group members are taught that by submitting to the “group conscience” they are putting pride aside. Group members are taught to value opinions that differ from theirs because all opinions work together to shape what ultimately becomes the group conscience. In US government we see the founders created three branches of government and divided the legislative branch. This serves to diminish the influence of Confirmation Bias. Getting all three branches of government to agree on something goes a long way to diminishing self-influence especially when the individual members of those bodies have diverse backgrounds.
Is it possible to break free of pride, or the Confirmation Bias? Perhaps not completely but the effort to do so is aided by the grade of God for the believer. “Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and He shall lift you up” (James 4:10). Introspection is the process of examining one’s thoughts. One must learn to question themselves to become humble. “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to Him, and He will make your paths straight. (Proverbs 3:5-6). Even while reading the Bible, we are still influenced by Confirmation Bias – some more than others. So, breaking free from it is the process of a lifetime. We must be consistently aware of our bias and honestly (yes, really honestly) ask God to show us truth regardless the cost.