“Above all, don’t lie to yourself. The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to a point that he cannot distinguish the truth within him, or around him, and so loses all respect for himself and for others.” – Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov
Have you ever known someone who was so convinced of a theory that no matter what evidence came to light they saw it only as confirmation of their belief, no matter how contrary the evidence actually was?
I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately. It’s called confirmation bias, and it poses a threat to everyone. A confirmation bias is “the tendency to interpret new evidence as confirmation of one’s existing beliefs or theories.” And the more I think about it, the scarier it is.
Of all the logical pitfalls to fall into, the confirmation bias is perhaps the deadliest. It’s very nature is to trick its victims into believing that the trap door is really the escape hatch. The victim actually believes they are being objective, even when they have clearly lost objectivity. And the longer it continues, the harder it will be for that person to ever see it properly. It’s kind of like a Chinese finger trap where the harder you pull against it the tighter the trap becomes.
The reason why it’s so deadly is that, by its very nature, it creates an environment in which objectivity is lost and therefore any objective truth cannot enter. In any logical pitfall, objective truth is like a rope dangling into a pit as a means of escape. The confirmation bias removes a person’s ability to see the rope, and thus prevents any escape from the one and only conclusion to which that person is pre-supposed to believe on that issue.
Confirmation bias can be harmful in relationships because a person who refuses to acknowledge or listen to the opinions of others may regularly find themselves isolated and continually at odds with the people around them. Ultimately, it can cause someone to only recognize themself as an authority.
TIME published a list of “10 of the world’s most enduring conspiracy theories“. Here one can see confirmation bias at work. From 9/11 government cover-ups to fake moon landings, conspiracy theories persist even when there is overwhelming evidence to disprove them, because of confirmation bias.
A conspiracy theory may begin with legitimate questions. But when combined with confirmation bias, the theorists only accept cherry-picked evidence which supports their previously held belief, while they universally discard the rest. The result is an unassailable conspiracy theory. This is why 5% of Americans still believe the moon landing was faked.
As Christians, we should be on the lookout for confirmation bias in our own lives. It represents a serious threat not only to our personal relationships but also to our testimonies. Fortunately, there are some things we can do to avoid the confirmation bias in our own views.
I’ve put together a list of nine ways to avoid confirmation bias in your life. If you think of other ways, please feel free to share them in the comments section.
#1 A Solid Foundation
Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the steams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash. – Matthew 7:24-27 (NIV)
Your word is a lamp for my feet, a light on my path. – Psalm 119:105 (NIV)
The single best way to avoid confirmation bias in your life is to test everything against God’s Word. It is the very word of God, and God promises that if we follow it our way will be made clear. That doesn’t mean that every issue will be covered by God’s Word. The Bible doesn’t address moon landings! But even the simple acknowledgement that objective truth exists outside of your own observation can be a safety net.
#2 Safety In Numbers
Where there is no guidance, a people falls, but in an abundance of counselors there is safety. – Proverbs 11:14 (ESV)
Confirmation bias attacks us on a personal level, often at our ego. It eliminates objectivity by placing our own interpretations at the center of the thought universe. You want to avoid confirmation bias? Surround yourself with good people…and listen to them. It doesn’t mean you always agree, but you always listen. And dovetailing off the first point: surround yourself with people who also revere God’s Word.
#3 Admit You’re Not An Expert In Everything
There is so much information out there, and so many fields of knowledge. It isn’t a weakness to admit you don’t know everything. You can’t know everything. In fact, you’re probably not even an expert in one thing. So find people that are experts that you trust and then listen to them and learn from them.
And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. – Matthew 6:13 (ESV)
I think praying about your decisions and your views every day is a good way to avoid the temptation of confirmation bias. God can and will use the Holy Spirit to convict us when we are in error and will also give us wisdom to come to the right decisions.
#5 Intentionally Read People With Whom You Disagree
The first to plead his case seems right, until another comes and examines him. – Proverbs 18:17 (NASB)
One of the chief sources of confirmation bias comes when we listen to only one side of a debate. Sometimes we hear one side and our opinion becomes etched in stone. Other times we listen to only the side with whom we already agree. I think it’s healthy to find an author or speaker that represents an opposing view and take the time to read or listen to what they have to say. Ask yourself questions: what are their foundational points? What assumptions are they making? What are their underlying attitudes, values, and beliefs?
You may find that you misjudged the issue or misunderstood their motives. You may even change your mind. Or you may become solidified in your dissenting view. At the very least you will be able to speak intelligently when debating a proponent of that view.
#6 Think, Don’t React
My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry. – James 1:19 (NIV)
This verse doesn’t just apply to anger, I think it also applies to clear thinking. Anger is often a sharp intense emotion, and it’s clear that James is saying that being quick to listen and slow to speak is the antidote. Slowing down and thinking through an issue prevents the sort of knee-jerk reactions common to confirmation bias. I don’t necessarily think that when we are guilty of confirmation bias that it always has to do with reactionary thinking; but I do believe reactionary thinkers are more prone to confirmation bias than others.
#7 Don’t Judge A Book By Its Cover
But the Lord said to Samuel, ‘Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.’ – I Samuel 16:7 (ESV)
The saying “Never judge a book by its cover” is frequently cited when a person rejects the opinion of a lowly person. But the opposite is true as well: never believe someone just because they look good on television. Perhaps the most egregious violation of this in my lifetime has been the media’s obsessive fawning over former president Barack Obama.
Obama is gifted orator. He is clean, well-dressed, eloquent, and has a certain commanding presence about him on television. But I’ll never forget what Conservative author Dennis Prager did during Obama’s run to the White House. He took a heralded speech by Obama, and played side by side two things: the first was a Obama giving the speech; the second was just a regular person reading the speech transcript.
When Obama spoke, you were inclined to hear the presentation itself and the emotions. But when the regular person gave the speech, you truly heard the content. And, from my perspective, it was rather ominous. The point being: listen to what is being said, not just who is saying it.
#8 Be Willing To Have A Conversation
Many people avoid having conversations, especially in social media platforms. There are times where this is acceptable and even necessary. But far too often people fail to even engage another person in a controversial topic because they simply wish to avoid controversy. This attitude can definitely lead to confirmation bias.
Social media can actually be a place where you really learn a lot. You can have constructive and respectful conversations about a lot of different subjects. Yes, it can be argumentative, frustrating, and stressful; but it can also be a place where our testimonies can shine. Don’t be afraid to engage.
#9 Think A Second Time
Finally, be willing to revisit an issue in the future. A lot of times we have limited information through which to form a judgment. Sometimes, too, future research or exploration of an idea leads to new and relevant information. If we close our minds on an issue, we can miss important data that may change our minds.