In the previous article in this series, we discussed what defines the term “critical thinking” and why Christ-followers should care about it. In this installment, we’ll discuss the topic of cognitive bias.
Bias is easy to grasp because we’ve all encountered them in others, especially those of us who are not Caucasian, though we all tend to be completely oblivious to biases within ourselves. We who have performed some serious self-examination during our getting free from various addictions, abuse/neglect, or a bad marriage or two have been brought face-to-face — often quite painfully! — with their presence in our own thought-lives so those barriers to our recovery can be removed.
But before we proceed further, again let’s establish some solid definitions to work with:
- from the word “cognition” — the mental action or process of acquiring knowledge and understanding through thought, experience, and the senses resulting in a perception, sensation, notion, or intuition.
- a prejudice in favor of or against one thing, person, or group compared with another, usually in a way considered to be unfair
- a preconceived opinion that is not based on reason or actual experience; a dislike, hostility, or unjust behavior deriving from unfounded opinions
- a view or judgment formed about something, not necessarily based on fact or knowledge
- information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote or publicize a particular political cause or point of view
Please note the common thread among the first 3 definitions: none of them require critical thinking for us to possess them!
Indeed, they are an inescapable aspect of the human condition because prejudices are a direct result of The Rebellion in Eden. Before then, Adam and Eve were in perfect union with God and one another. As a result, all their perceptions were based upon objective reality which, at that time, was perfection in every aspect of their lives.
After that, not so much!
Once they rebelled, their intellects, perceptions, emotions, and reasoning became corrupted and clouded. Since every being on this planet reproduces after its own kind, every human since then has inherited all those hindrances to our thinking. Thanks for nothing, guys!
Biases are imparted to us through:
- The societal influences from whatever culture we live in.
- Being raised by biased, opinionated parents (who generally were raised just like they raised us!) and/or;
- Being directly abused/neglected by one or more persons responsible for our care/education, or they failed to protect us from abuse/neglect, or they influenced others to abuse/neglect us and/or;
- Being victimized by a person from a demographic group (occupation, race, gender, nationality, religion, political affiliation, etc.) who somehow damaged us or our family through a personal, business, governmental, and/or religious relationship
- etc., etc.
The bottom line is we tend to tar all other folks who are not “us” or having whatever characteristics defines that group with the same brush and then resenting, opposing, shunning, even overtly persecuting those who we’ve just painted with it while having a total disregard for their actual individual guilt or innocence. Just for 2 recent examples, we’ve seen this happen with hatred towards those from the Middle East and India immediately post-911 and more recently towards East Asians since COVID-19 became a hot-button issue.
Contrary to current pop culture narratives within the US, we white Americans did not invent slavery or racial discrimination.
- Chattel slavery is pervasive within all Moslem countries to this day and has been since Mohammed. Points of fact: Moslems were selling Caucasians as slaves centuries before the New World was discovered, and it was black and Arab Moslem slavers who rounded up Africans to sell them to slave traders from the West. Almost all Native American tribes practiced slavery in some form or fashion and several of them fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War.
- Discrimination based upon skin color is evidenced worldwide because all societies in all countries tend to favor those with lighter skin color and show disdain towards those who are darker.
The underlying assumption in the Third World is anyone with lighter skin is of a higher class because they are either rich or work at indoor jobs, whereas darker folks within those societies are peasants out working in the fields/paddies in the hot sun (only in the West is a suntan considered to be a good thing!). A classic example of this is the now-outlawed Hindu castes where the top-level Brahmins have the lightest skin color and the so-called “untouchables” have the darkest. This also explains why there is such a huge demand within the Third World for ointments and other skin treatments to lighten ones’ skin as well as a corresponding marketplace to supply them.
I’ve already addressed the topic of racism elsewhere here, so let’s move on!
Now let’s take a look at the various flavors of cognitive bias out there (and in ourselves!). Here is a non-exhaustive list:
- the customs, arts, social institutions, and achievements of a particular nation, people, or other social group; it also defines the moral, intellectual, perceptual, philosophical, attitudinal, spiritual, and behavioral standards considered to be normal by the majority of its members
The single biggest, most pervasive, most intrusive, most powerful bias every Christ-follower must recognize, guard against, and overcome has nothing to do with the personal traumas we may have experienced: it is the culture in which we live. Though we can mitigate cultural bias to a certain extent, we cannot ever truly escape it because we tend to be defined by the society in which we live and function. Accordingly, this is a bias against which believers must always be vigilant and wary because it is so subtle and insidious.
My friend Dr. Kirk Durston has addressed cultural bias and its impact upon Christianity in this short video. Kirk is the real deal, a true renaissance man. On top of being an excellent theologian and articulate apologist/philosopher, he is also a talented nature photographer, mechanical engineer, and biophysicist who has authored or coauthored more than a few published papers in a variety of disciplines.. I’m one of Kirk’s biggest fans and heartily endorse both his writings and his video presentations.
We are so conditioned by our culture that whenever we find ourselves immersed in a different one through visiting or moving to another nation, we experience some level of emotional trauma from that transition. It’s called “culture shock” and its emotional impact varies in length and severity depending upon how drastic the differences are between our native country and the one in which we find ourselves compounded by the length of time we are “over there.” In other words, visiting a new country for a brief vacation and relocating to it for an extended period of time are two different animals.
Also, it is far easier for us to adapt between similar cultures, such as what I underwent when I was stationed in then-West Germany during the Cold War, than it is between drastically different ones, such as an American becoming a missionary anywhere in the Third World.
The term “feeling like a fish out of water” is commonly used to describe the emotional impact of culture shock and can lead to severe depression. When I was in Germany, many GIs tried to medicate theirs through various vices such as drunkenness, frequenting brothels, and drug abuse.
Culture shock is further multiplied by language differences — it is far easier for an American to adapt to a country such as England or Australia where English is also the primary language than for that same American to adapt to China, Japan, or India where there are zero linguistic similarities (assuming English is the only language that American knows, that is!). For example, when I was in Germany, I remembered enough of my junior high and high school German classes to be able to handle the basics: the rules of pronunciation and basic grammar, as well as sufficient vocabulary to find a restroom, order in a restaurant, purchase at a store, navigate while driving, buy a train ticket, direct a taxi driver, etc. whereas I have no such advantage in any other non-English-speaking country (that being said, you’d be amazed at how well you can get by with only a few words; I was able to handle myself effectively in Lausanne, Switzerland for a day knowing only the words please, thank you, hello, goodbye, and 1-10 in French; the rest was filled in with pointing!).
Over time, we adapt and begin functioning more and more gracefully and effectively within our new cultural environment. If we spend a lengthy period of time in a new country, whenever we return to our native one, we can experience reverse culture shock as we struggle to re-adapt to our original environment. This is frequently experienced by expatriate missionaries, university students, and workers when they return either on furlough or permanently to their native lands.
Cultural bias is a major obstacle we must overcome whenever we approach our relationship with Jesus and our interpretation of His written Word. One of the major earmarks of the current spate of folks who have publicly renounced their faith in Christ is their abandonment of the Bible as our sole authority over faith and practice to embrace the secular humanist ideologies and narratives constantly parroted within pop culture.
Let me be perfectly clear here so no one can accuse me of burying the lead:
- Cultural Christianity is not Christianity.
- Popular culture is our sworn enemy, not our friend.
And whatever particular culture we were raised in has zero bearing on that last statement because all human culture is precisely that: human. I’ve delved into the implications of that issue elsewhere here at Miscellaneous Ramblings, so I’m not going to re-invent that wheel here.
The Bible is replete with accounts of folks who disregarded the Person and commands of the Almighty to do whatever was right in their own eyes because everyone else around them was doing it too — in not a single instance did it end well for them! As the old proverb goes, “a wise man learns from his mistakes; a far wiser man learns from the mistakes of others, as well!” which explains why all those accounts exist in the first place.
Following Christ means our operating as counter-cultural influences. In other words, we are called to change — not blend into — the society around us!
By glorifying God through walking in love and integrity towards others as well as preaching the living Christ through word and deed to a hopeless and dying humanity endlessly engaged in a desperate yet futile quest for a spiritual clue. This is the very essence of the Great Commission and Jesus’ game plan has not changed one iota since the moment He uttered it!
We accomplish all that through trusting in God’s promises and renewing our minds to conform to God’s way of thinking and operating:
Everything we could ever need for life and godliness has already been deposited in us by His divine power. For all this was lavished upon us through the rich experience of knowing Him who has called us by name and invited us to come to Him through a glorious manifestation of His goodness. As a result of this, He has given you magnificent promises that are beyond all price, so that through the power of these tremendous promises we can experience partnership with the divine nature, by which you have escaped the corrupt desires that are of the world. 2 Peter 1:3-4 TPT
Stop imitating the ideals and opinions of the culture around you, but be inwardly transformed by the Holy Spirit through a total reformation of how you think. This will empower you to discern God’s will as you live a beautiful life, satisfying and perfect in His eyes. Romans 12:2 TPT
This takes place when the first thing we judge influences our judgment of all that follows. In other words, our minds are associative in nature, so the order in which we receive information/experiences helps us form our judgments and perceptions. This defines what we’ve just discussed regarding being victimized by someone(s) from some group(s).
- enabling someone to discover or learn something for themselves
This form of bias occurs when our judgments are influenced by what most quickly springs to mind. How recent, emotionally powerful, or unusual our memories are can make them seem more relevant, which in turn causes us to apply them too readily. This is akin to what happens when abuse victims are emotionally triggered by something or someone they subconsciously associate with either their abuser or the abuse they suffered.
Curse of Knowledge
Once we understand something we tend to presume it to be obvious to everyone else. It can be hard to remember our own prior state of confusion when we didn’t understand something.
This one tends to be a huge issue within the Body of Christ whenever we are dealing with the lost or when charismatics are dealing with non-charismatics. We can be incredibly patronizing at times and that attitude serves the Kingdom of God terribly!
We favor things which confirm our existing beliefs. We are primed to see and agree with ideas which fit our preconceptions and to ignore/dismiss anything conflicting with them.
The first principle is that you must not fool yourself — and you are the easiest person to fool. Richard Feynman
There is an epidemic of this within the Body of Christ, especially among non-charismatics when dealing with any aspect of charismata.
This is especially a issue when approaching study of the Scriptures where this bias expresses itself as “eisegesis” or “front-loading” and it is an absolute hermeneutical no-no, hence my article on proper rules for biblical interpretation elsewhere here on this blog.
This one goes hand-in-hand with Confirmation Bias. What distinguishes this from that is if something conforms to our existing beliefs, we tend to rationalize anything supporting it. It is exceedingly difficult for us to set aside our preconceptions to consider the true merits of an opposing argument. In practice, this bias means our beliefs become impervious to criticism and are perpetually reinforced.
One useful tool to counter this bias is to ask ourselves, “Where did I get this belief?”
This means the more we know, the less confident we’re likely to be. Because experts know just how much they don’t know, they tend to underestimate their expertise. It’s easy to be over-confident when we only have a simple grasp of how things are, so be exceedingly skeptical of very confident opinions lacking an expert understanding.
This is why something called “peer review” exists within academia and the scientific community. Fellow experts in your given field get to put your work under a figurative and/or literal microscope, thereby exposing all your unsupported presuppositions and conclusions. Any theologian worth his salt should welcome this!
This is why I am constantly inviting all of you to evaluate whatever you read here in the light of your own study of Scripture. Eat the hay and spit out the sticks!
We tend to believe all our failures are caused by external factors, but we personally are solely responsible for our successes. Many of us enjoy unearned privileges and advantages which others do not have. It is easy for us to develop a sense of entitlement, telling ourselves we deserve our blessings while blaming others and external circumstances when things are not going our way.
This bias is endemic to the Body of Christ these days. When we are doing well, we tend to adopt a “born-on-third-base-while-thinking-we-hit-a-triple” attitude, erroneously thinking we deserved such because we are “doing something right,” so somehow God owed us and delivered. Then when things do eventually go south because of our own stupid choices/attitudes, we tend to blame God by saying He inflicted it upon us to teach us patience.
Here’s a universal truism for you: God owes us nothing but Hell! The only reason any of us has something else on this planet is through His grace and mercy, PERIOD!
This bias is also at the core of any addict’s denial erected to protect him-/herself from having to deal with it.
The Backfire Effect
When our core beliefs are challenged, we tend to believe them all the more strongly aka “entrenchment.” This comes from us misinterpreting the wrongness of our beliefs as attacks on our very selves or our tribal identity. This can cause us to reinforce a broader false narrative despite it being contradicted by a particular fact (aka an inconvenient truth).
The Barnum Effect
This is when we see personal specifics within vague statements by filling in the blanks in our own minds. Psychics, astrologers, and other charlatans leverage this bias to make it seem like they’re telling us something personally relevant. To counteract this, we should try to see how things could be interpreted to apply universally, instead of just ourselves.
We see a variant of this whenever we see Christians take vague verses/passages from the Scriptures and try to read a specificity into them God never intended. Terrible hermeneutics!
This is in play when we let the social dynamics of a group situation override the best outcomes. Dissent can be uncomfortable (the old proverb of “it’s the nail sticking up which gets hammered down” comes to mind), so frequently the most confident or first voice will determine group decisions. This is the essence of the term “politically correct” which was directly lifted from Marxist discourse. We need to be thinking for ourselves no matter where that leads us, rather that going with the flow of whatever is deemed popular, expedient, or socially acceptable.
This is so pervasive within pop culture these days it defies description. Everyone from liberal politicians to various corporations to Hollywood celebrities are in a total lockstep of “woke”-ness and anyone who does not immediately toe the party line is immediately vilified and concerted attempts are made to remove offenders from having any means of presenting their counter cases.
This happens when we allow negative things to disproportionately influence our thinking. We feel our pain and losses more keenly and persistently than the fleeting gratification of pleasant things. We are primed to survive and our aversion to pain can distort our judgment in the modern world.
We find this bias prevalent in folks who have been physically, mentally, verbally, sexually, or religiously abused/neglected (I know this from personal experience!).
We all tend to remember the past as better than it really was and expect the future to be worse than evidence would suggest (see Optimism & Pessimism Biases below).
This occurs whenever we allow ourselves to be unduly influenced by a passionate delivery lacking contextual information based in reality.
Sometimes, a message is crafted a certain way or items of information are excluded from a narrative to elicit a desired response in the listeners. The modern term is “spin” and forms the core of all propaganda.
This is never acceptable!
We need to be diligent to watch out for it, especially when hearing anything offered by the political/theological left. There is always an agenda in play and in my humble opinion based upon experience, that agenda is never a godly one.
A perfect example of this kind of message tailoring is the current propaganda arising from the in-custody death of George Floyd in 2020. The network news as I write this is constantly proclaiming how George Floyd was callously murdered by a racist cop to serve their agenda of advancing Marxism. This is an entirely different kettle of fish from reality:
- George Floyd, a life-long drug addict, actually died due to a combination of extremely poor personal health as well as self-ingesting a 3-times-the-lethal-dose of fentanyl + methamphetamine to avoid being busted for drug possession while he was violently resisting arrest after passing a counterfeit bill in a grocery store.
- Also missing from the pop culture narrative’s context is the fact Floyd was significantly taller by almost a foot and heavier by 80 or so pounds than each of the four officers who were attempting to arrest him.
- Also absent from that narrative is the rapidly increasing hostility of the bystanders as the incident progressed which significantly distracted the officers and delayed the EMT’s access to get Floyd the medical treatment he so desperately needed in a timely manner.
In my humble opinion, I am convinced the jury voted for conviction simply to save their own skins after their identities were revealed to the public and after having been threatened by certain members of our congress who inflamed and mobilized the leftist mob to retaliate should Chauvin be exonerated. This incitement was so egregious, the presiding judge opined to the defense team that this would be an excellent grounds for appeal to overturn the conviction. But I digress…
The Halo Effect
This means how much/little we like someone or how attractive/unattractive we find them or how we react emotionally to them on a gut level influences all our other judgments concerning their message. In some cases, the personality and/or delivery method and/or personal mannerisms of the messengers simply get in the way of their message to varying degrees (this is an issue I’m sensitized to because I’m constantly dealing with it in myself; I just cannot seem to resist bluntly and tactlessly proclaiming to whoever will listen a theological emperor is naked!).
This is why so many ignorant-of-the-facts believers rejected President Trump and voted for the charlatans currently in power: Trump said mean comments on Twitter. This is also why many non-charismatics utterly reject the charismatic experience; many charismatics and Pentecostals are simply flakes and/or legalistic jerks! Again, I digress…
However, none of these factors serve to verify or negate the message being presented.
If we find ourselves consistently giving high or low marks across the board to someone, it’s worth our time to explore whether this bias is in play within our thinking processes.
Fundamental Attribution Error
This is where we judge others for their character/performance and ourselves for our intentions. It’s not only kind to view others’ perspectives, it’s more objective as well. Try to be mindful to err towards taking personal responsibility rather than justifying and blaming.
Again, this is not only prevalent throughout society in general, but tragically also in the Church.
The “Just World” Hypothesis
When this is in play, our preference for a just world makes us presume such a place exists or can exist, which is a form of magical thinking. We all want everyone to receive their so-called “just reward” where the suffering no longer suffer, the bad guys get theirs, and the good guys ride off into the sunset to live happily ever after.
The truth of the matter is we are all fallen beings living in a corrupt world run by the aforementioned psychopathic Satan where effluent happens with what can be depressing regularity. A real world where a just end doesn’t happen with absolute certainly in all cases at all times is an uncomfortable one which threatens our preferred narrative.
This bias is the primary driver behind the secular humanism of the left: they stridently demand a just world and they are deluded into thinking we can achieve that on our own spin by education, technology, and social engineering through the engine of big government. Sorry, I just digressed again!
As I’ve stated elsewhere here on Miscellaneous Ramblings, every human being on this planet has a racial memory of Eden where everything was true and flawless with all our needs met in abundance. We instinctively call that state “normal” and evaluate ourselves, others, and the world in general by that standard.
Whenever “normal” is inevitably not achieved for various reasons, we call that situation/person “abnormal,” “unjust,” or “unfair,” especially when the victim of that situation is someone we have judged as “good” (Why do bad things happen to good people? Dunno because there ain’t none! “…there is none who does good, no, not one.” — Romans 3:12b)
All this is why this bias is simply an unrealizable fantasy this side of heaven or the millennial reign of Christ.
Optimism & Pessimism Biases
These are different sides of the same coin. Pessimism overestimates the likelihood of negative outcomes while optimism overestimates the likelihood of positive ones. There are indeed benefits to being positive, but it needs to be tempered with realism. Ironically, the more rational decisions we make, the more we will have to be positive about!
Pessimism and its cousin cynicism are defense mechanisms against disappointment. The tragedy of pessimism is that, even when something good happens, a pessimist will feel negatively about it anyway.
I ran across a funny saying a few years back.
An optimist believes this to be the best of all possible worlds.
A pessimist fears this to be true.
While humorous, there is an element of truth to be found here in the third word of each sentence. An optimist believes and the pessimist fears.
Faith and fear are two sides of the same coin: both believe something which cannot be seen in the present will come to pass in the future.
When we are operating in true faith, we have chosen to abandon our self-directed plans and purposes (repentance) and entrusted our gracious Heavenly Father to keep His promises to us as found in His Word. When we operate in fear, we have taken our eyes off Jesus, the Author and Perfecter of our faith, and centered our focus upon our circumstances, real or imagined, and then imagining the worst possible outcome.
Such a bias occurs whenever we overestimate how much people notice how we look and/or act. This is the essence of peer pressure, real or imagined, as well as such eating disorders as anorexia nervosa and bulimia, plastic surgery addiction, and tattoo addiction. I’ve lost count of the stories I’ve heard of folks who were terrified of the opinions held by the cool kids towards them at school and discovered years later that same group had never even thought about them.
The Bible says:
The fear of man brings a snare, But whoever trusts in the Lord shall be safe.Proverbs 29:25
That’s a wrap for cognitive biases. Next, we’ll tackle logical fallacies.
Thanks for reading!