Can Bias Affect My Understanding of the Bible?

Christians face many external challenges in our work, but some of the most treacherous obstacles we may encounter are the tricks played on us by our own minds. 

The tricks I am referring to are known as cognitive biases. Cognitive biases are mental processes that sabotage our ability to collect the right information, assess it properly and make good decisions.

While cognitive biases ceaselessly affect every facet of one’s life, they can have an especially detrimental effect on the heart of a Christian. Christians are particularly susceptible, since we are constantly engaged in bible study, evangelizing and supporting those around us, and any misunderstanding or misinterpretation of the scriptures can cause us to not follow God’s teaching. Therefore it is vital for Christians to be aware of these biases and deal with them resolutely. Proverbs 3:5 gives us the direction we need, "Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding."

While the term cognitive bias has a negative connotation and many negative consequences, cognitive biases do have some benefits in human lives. Like rules of thumb and educated guesses, they allow us to make quick decisions in situations of danger or stress when the brain, for efficiency reasons, needs to skip being methodical and reach conclusions quickly. 

In this present day and age we rarely need to assume fight or flight reflexes though and the reality is that cognitive biases cause significantly more harm than good.

The first and most crucial step in fighting the destructive impact of cognitive biases is to be aware of their existence. Although there are over many various biases, we will focus on a few that are the most common.

Confirmation Bias

The first is Confirmation bias, which is the human tendency to seek, interpret and remember information that confirms pre-existing beliefs.

The desire "to be right", and the desire to “have been right” are two desires, and the sooner we separate them the better off we are. 

The desire to be right is the thirst for truth. On all counts, both practical and theoretical, there is nothing but good to be said for it. The desire to have been right, on the other hand, is the pride that goeth before a fall. It stands in the way of our seeing we were wrong, and thus blocks the progress of increasing our knowledge.

Seek First To Understand, Then To Be Understood. ... "Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”. - Stephen Covey 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

This does not mean that we need to try and actively disprove everything that we do, but we must not dismiss the fact there may be more to the story than what we know. 

The Bible tells us in James 1:5-8 where we should seek understanding:

5 If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. 6 But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. 7 For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; 8 he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.

Proverbs 18:2 goes on to say that 2 "A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion."

Confirmation bias affects individuals in 3 ways:

1. How you seek information

Confirmation bias affects how you look at the world around you. When you’re alone at home feeling lousy, you immediately jump onto Facebook or Instagram. You look at pictures of people traveling, attending a get together, getting married and think everyone you know is living a great life. You say to yourself, “I am such a lonely sad person.” You sit at home and feel bad — all because you chose to seek information that confirms your negative feelings. You knew looking at those photos would make you feel worse but you sought them anyway.

2. How you interpret the information in front of you

Confirmation bias also affects how you process what is otherwise neutral information — and it tends to favor your beliefs.

When you are falling in love, all you see in your partner is a beautiful perfect being. You don’t notice a single flaw. When that relationship sours, all of a sudden, all you see are flaws — Talks too much, doesn’t have food on the table, cries too much.  You are dating the exact same person, but you perceive the things he/she does differently based on how you feel.


3. How you remember things

Even your memories are affected by confirmation bias. You interpret and possibly even change memories and facts in your head based on your beliefs. In a classic experiment, Princeton and Dartmouth students were shown a game between the two schools. At the end, Princeton students remembered more fouls committed by Dartmouth, and Dartmouth students remembered more fouls committed by Princeton.

Both groups of students fundamentally believed their school was better. So they tended to remember and recall more instances that showed their school in a good light and the opposing school in a bad light.

Why am I like this?

You seek evidence that confirms your beliefs because being wrong feels bad. Being wrong means you’re not as smart as you thought. So you end up seeking information that confirms what you already know. Evidence that runs counter to our beliefs often causes cognitive dissonance — a feeling of immense stress and anxiety.

We want the external world that we interact with, to be congruent with our thoughts, opinions and notions. Any information or interpretation of information that contradicts our beliefs, views or pre-conceived notions creates dissonance in our minds that leads to mental discomfort. We are programmed to reduce, or if possible, eliminate this mental discomfort, which is where the confirmation bias comes in. There are people in this world who will twist things around to fit their own agenda. We know this to be the case as 2 Peter 3:16-17 tells us

"….. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures. 17 You therefore, beloved, knowing this beforehand, take care that you are not carried away with the error of lawless people and lose your own stability."

A confirmation bias in daily life is where people look for information that supports their existing notions. A more profound example of confirmation bias, which has life-and-death implications, can be found in the world of medical diagnosis. Physicians are known to be prone to confirmation bias when diagnosing patients. After a few short minutes of Q&A with a patient, the physician may reflexively form an opinion of what the diagnosis is, and from that point onward, her questions -- and interpretation of the answers -- will be geared towards confirming her diagnosis. 

In the Christian walk, being subject to the influence of confirmation bias may be equated to driving a car with one eye covered. You see some of what’s ahead of you —  but the full picture and depth perspective are lost. Christians, intensely focused on our goal of heaven therefore may be extra vulnerable to the destructive effect of confirmation bias.

We commit these travesties, in order to minimize the mental gap between what we know a Christian should be and the reality of how far away we are from that. A Christian needs to be aware of the danger of operating under the influence of confirmation bias and devise ways to mitigate the negative effects of that bias.

Once we have formed a view, we embrace information that confirms that view while ignoring, or rejecting, information that casts doubt on it. Confirmation bias suggests that we don’t perceive circumstances objectively. We pick out those bits of data that make us feel good because they confirm our prejudices. Thus, we may become prisoners of our assumptions.

This leads me to my final point, how can we avoid Bias in our understanding of others and in scripture?

“We must let the Bible shape our frame of mind, rather than letting our frame of mind shape our interpretations of the Bible.”

Paul says it best it best in 1 Timothy 5:21 “I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus and of His chosen angels, to maintain these principles without bias, doing nothing in a spirit of partiality.” 

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