Doing Nothing By Partiality: Confirmation Bias
The human brain is wonderful and fascinating to behold. Weighing in at just three pounds and made of a substance that looks no more useful than jelly, it possesses the capacity to perform 1016 processes per second. There is no computer in existence that is nearly as powerful. As a Christian, one can hardly consider the brain's power, capacity, and ingenuity without declaring, "I will praise thee; for I am fearfully and wonderfully made" (Ps. 139:14).
But, because of the fall, sin has taken effect on the entirety of our being, and our brains are no exception. In fact, because our consciousness, our mind, our life, our existence is contained within our brain, it is there that sin has its most noticeable impact. Our brains control who we are and what we do thus we are sinners by nature and by practice. Sure it can be trained, but sin means that we are inclined towards bias. The Christian mind is no different. We have the Spirit of God indwelling us, but the principle of the flesh remains until the day of our final redemption. Scientists think biases are good for us. They tell us it is how we survive–we reduce the facts to a narrative that we can understand, but we miss out a good deal of the truth.
The apostles wrote to various churches on the dangers of showing bias. On some occasions, it was a warning against showing partiality on account of who someone was. God hates this. But on another occasion Paul wrote to Timothy and instructed him to 'do nothing by partiality' (1 Tim. 5:21). This series will examine different aspects of the Christian life and highlight how we are prone to bias and seek to understand how we can protect ourselves against it. This month we start with a form of bias that affects us in various ways–confirmation bias.
Confirmation bias is 'the tendency to search for, interpret, focus on and remember information in a way that confirms one's preconceptions.' Put simply; confirmation bias is to have the answer already and then go looking for the research that supports it. The problem is that when we do this, we tend to either interpret everything in our chosen frame of reference or ignore information that contradicts it.
We've all done it. 'I trust my gut' says someone. We get a bad vibe from someone, or they shoot us a look we don't like. Our opinion has been formed, and so we interpret everything in that light. Every move they make has an angle to it; every comment is treated with suspicion; every good deed has an ulterior motive. So everything they do or say is now framed by our first interaction with them. But we know we're right because we worked them out. They're bad news!
What has happened? We are showing partiality, or bias. We have the answer already; now we're going looking for the information, or we're ignoring facts that contradict our view. The word Paul uses in 1 Timothy 5 is where we get our English word 'incline.' Thus to be partial or biased is to be inclined in a certain direction.
Another area where confirmation bias can affect us is in our handling of God's word. Scripture is a mine of information, and for the vast majority, the easiest way to handle it is to reduce it to a select number of narratives that fit how we already view the world. Once we have determined that narrative, we then use it to interpret everything. So an amillennialist ignores verses that show how there is a future for Israel. A Pentecostal finds verses that he thinks justifies his continuationist view of the miraculous gifts, but ignores verses that contradict it. We all fall into the trap of ignoring verses that contradict our sinful choices. These are all examples of confirmation bias.
So how do we avoid it? When handling Scripture, it is vital, to be honest with the text. We don't ignore the bits that challenge us, or worse, seek to explain them away by redefining the context. Paul told the Corinthians; we 'have renounced the hidden things of dishonesty, not walking in craftiness, nor handling the word of God deceitfully; but by manifestation of the truth' (2 Cor. 4:2). When handling others, it is vital to remember something else that Paul told the Corinthians; "Love...believeth all things" (1 Cor. 13:7). A literal interpretation could read; 'love takes everything at face value.'
This is a high standard. May we know God's help in being free from confirmation bias in our dealings with His word and His people.