The Dangers of Confirmation Bias
The Oxford Dictionary defines the concept of confirmation bias as, “The tendency to interpret new evidence as confirmation of one's existing beliefs or theories.” This psychological phenomenon seems to be on display constantly in our public life, but there was a particularly egregious example of it last weekend. As the annual March for Life was concluding in Washington, DC, a short video clip was posted to the internet purporting to show a group of white teenagers from Covington Catholic High School in Kentucky, who had attended the rally, mocking and taunting a Native American man as he beat on a drum and chanted (pictured above by the Washington Post).
For many people – on both sides of the political aisle – the only evidence needed to come to a conclusion that the boys were racists was the fact that the teenagers were white and that they were wearing “Make America Great Again” hats supportive of President Trump. When videos showing the entire sequence of events leading up to the confrontation between the teenage boys and the Native American man were subsequently released, the entire narrative was turned on its head. The boys in question were actually the victims of sustained, verbal abuse by yet a third party, and it was clear that the Native American man had approached and engaged the boys in a somewhat bizarre and confrontational manner. Some pundits admitted their error in rushing to judge the boys, but many others either quietly removed their critical comments or doubled-down on the original narrative.
Why were so many people (including Covington Catholic High School itself) so eager to condemn the boys? It’s easy to use video to manipulate people, but people were also prone to interpret the few minutes of video they saw according to their preexisting biases against males, against teenagers, against white people, against pro-lifers, against Catholics, and especially against supporters of the president. Threats of violence and various obscenities have been launched against the boys, their school, and their parents – all based on a false interpretation of the events that happened last weekend. And despite there being abundant evidence that the initial story is false, there are many, many people unwilling to give up the story.
The power of confirmation bias is incredibly strong. If you believe something to be true, you naturally interpret events in such a way that you confirm your thesis. I have seen this type of thinking destroy personal relationships. One party becomes convinced he is not respected by another or that someone is out to get him. Every action taken (or not taken), every word said (or not said), and every facial expression given (or not given) is interpreted as further evidence of lack of respect or actual animus. No amount of contrary evidence or pleading can change the “victim’s” mind because that person is convinced that the data support the conclusion.
Confirmation bias is not only toxic in personal relationships, it impacts how we view our work, our congregations, our neighbors, and people we interact with in our communities. It can also influence the way we read our Bibles. As a pastor, I’ve had experiences in which I’ve worked through particular, biblical doctrines with people, who find a way to re-interpret seemingly clear passages in ways that conform to their preexisting ideas about election, baptism, and a whole host of other doctrines.
Perhaps most dangerous is the tendency we also have to allow confirmation bias to influence the way we interpret God’s providential dealings with us. Some people, convinced that God is unhappy with them, can find in every situation they encounter further evidence that God is displeased with them and that they will never find themselves in His good graces.
It is incumbent upon each one of us to recognize the power of confirmation bias upon our own lives. By the grace of God, we need to be “quick to hear and slow to speak” (James 1:19). We need to seek God’s help in trying to recognize areas of our own lives that are particularly susceptible to bias. Are we reacting to the truth or to what we assume to be true because it fits our preconceived notions? Confirmation bias can hinder our ministry to others, our study of God’s word, and our ability to love our neighbors. As such, we need to be on guard against it, and we need to be honest with ourselves when we are guilty of it.
You should ask friends you trust if you are guilty of this sin. For it is a sin. Christ-like love requires us to “rejoice in the truth” and to “hope all things” (1 Corinthians 13:6-7). Theologians refer to the requirement to hope all things, “the judgment of charity.” We all struggle at times to extend true charity to our neighbor. Part of our struggle is simple laziness. It’s easier to interpret a new situation in light of our preexisting biases than to actually do the hard work of finding out what is really going on and doing it in a loving manner.
You and I will never be free of confirmation bias, but we can rejoice because we have a Savior in Jesus Christ, who never let His personal biases distort the way He treated people. He loved all kinds of sinners – even those who were enslaved to their own biases. Entrust yourself to Him and seek His wisdom and strength to fight against this temptation in your own life.