Confirmation Bias

Shankar Vedantam is the host of NPR's show The Hidden Brain. The show explores the unseen, largely unconscious, cognitive processes that often shape our decisions, impact our emotions, and inform our thinking. Vedantam began his exploration into the social sciences by examining research on implicit bias—and it was from this study that he wrote his book on the subject—also called The Hidden Brain. Psychologists posit that implicit biases are influenced by experience and are often formed as a result of learning associations between qualities and categories including race and gender.(1)

There are many ways in which implicit biases function in our lives. Confirmation bias, for example, is the tendency to search for, interpret, focus on, and remember information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions.(2) People tend to react more favorably to information that supports their own point of view. Another example of a more insidious bias is the fundamental attribution error in which an observer ascribes to a subject fundamental or inherent deficiencies rather than to situational contexts that might also be at work. In addition, the observer is more likely to attribute his or her own deficiencies to circumstances or situational contexts, rather than to his or her own personal short-comings.

Many authors attribute the fundamental attribution error to a lack of empathy or the inability to take another person’s perspective. How does this cognitive error play out in real life? In a CBS News article from 2016, Stephanie Pappas reported on the widespread tendency to blame, rather than to empathize with individuals, when accidents happen.(3) She cites the horrific news story of the two-year old who died by alligator attack while playing next to a pond at Disney World. While she notes that there was some initial sympathy for the parents, the overall tone quickly moved to blame them for negligence. Clearly, it was their fault that their son had died. People ignored the numerous reports of the parents being right next to the child and of the father's desperate attempts to pry his son from the alligator's jaws. Rather than looking at broader circumstances or explanations—namely, that accidents do happen—most blamed the event on the inherent flaws of the parents.

Of course, many look at the partisan divides across the United States and in other parts of the world, as an obvious display of both confirmation bias and the fundamental attribution error. There is an unwillingness to consider another's viewpoint and do the hard work of thinking through one's own position in light of new information. Instead, most take the easy way out and simply point the finger at the other and assign blame. We quickly assume the other's beliefs, values, and positions reveal a lack of character. We huddle up and circle the wagons around those who confirm our own biases and ways of thinking. We shield ourselves from information that might suggest an alternative point of view. As a result, the ability to see the world from another's perspective wanes.

From a more spiritual perspective, confirmation bias and fundamental attribution errors are fueled in large part by an overarching tendency towards acedia, or spiritual despair. Acedia, identified as one of the seven deadly sins in medieval Christianity, reveals a loss of heart, a despair that chokes an empathetic imagination. In addition, author Kathleen Norris warns that acedia "is known to foster excessive self-justification, as well as a casual yet implacable judgmentalism toward others," and readily lends itself to this process of spiritual despair and deadening apathy.(3)

Magnanimity, or largeness of heart, is the corresponding virtue that combats the weariness of despair that emboldens apathy towards others rather than empathy. Magnanimity, as Norris notes, "requires creativity to recognize our faults, and to discern virtues in those we would rather disdain. Forgiveness demands close attention, flexibility, and stringent self-assessment, faculties that are hard to come by...."(5) Without magnanimity, empathy will continue to be in short-supply. Without empathy, we will continue to confirm our own positions while we attribute fundamental errors towards those we deem as “other.”

Even those with considerable bias against Christianity might be surprised to see how often Jesus of Nazareth exposed the biases of his own day. He often aligned himself with individuals with whom others would not empathize. Samaritans—a hated class of people in his day—were often his chief exemplars. The “Good Samaritan” is the hero of one of his most well-known parables, and the answer to the religious leader who questioned the extent of empathy when he asked, "Who is my neighbor?" Women who were labeled “sinners” by the all-male religious leaders were allowed to touch Jesus, anoint him with both their tears and with costly perfume. Being touched by a woman, let alone being bathed with her tears or being anointed with perfume that might have been procured through prostitution, would defile a religious man. Yet, Jesus allowed these gestures of devotion and repentance. Elsewhere, his kindness encouraged an outcast Samaritan woman to be the evangelist of her entire village. And Jesus took into his closest twelve followers individuals who would have been on opposite ends of the political spectrum of his own day: from a government sell-out and tax-collector to a right-wing zealot bent on overthrowing the government.

Jesus seemed to counter both confirmation bias and fundamental attribution errors in his life and ministry. He exhorted those who would follow to remove the log in their own eye before attending to the splinter in another's eye. He gathered around him what most would consider a motley crew of followers: women, the diseased, the disabled, common folk without education, tax-collectors and zealots. Indeed, the Christian vision as exemplified in the life of Jesus is of profound empathy for human beings and their plight. The least, the last, and the lost were gathered to him. The God on display in Jesus so identified with humanity that he walked among us, lived among us, and died for us. Not biased against us, the God attested to by Jesus's own life and ministry shows profound empathy towards us—a thought we do well to carry into this New Year before us. In so doing, we who call ourselves Christians, and all those who wonder about the Christian faith might be overwhelmed by this implicit bias towards us all.

Margaret Manning Shull is a member of the speaking and writing team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Bellingham, Washington.

(1)"Understanding Implicit Bias," Kirwan Institute, Ohio State University.
(2) Margit E. Oswald and Stefan Grosjean, "Confirmation Bias," in Rüdiger F. Pohl, Cognitive Illusions: A Handbook on Fallacies and Biases in Thinking, Judgement and Memory (Hove, UK: Psychology Press, 2004), 79–96.
(3) Stephanie Pappas, "Blame the parents? Child tragedies reveal empathy decline" CBS News Online, June 21, 2016. Accessed 10/13/2018.
(4) Norris, Kathleen, Acedia and Me (New York: Penguin, 2008), 116.
(5) Ibid., 116.

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