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Why We Don’t Change Our Minds: Confirmation Bias

Why We Don’t Change Our Minds: Confirmation Bias


…I proclaimed first to those in Damascus and Jerusalem, then to the whole region of Judea and to the Gentiles. My message was that they should change their hearts and lives and turn to God, and that they should demonstrate this change in their behavior.

Acts 26:20


After he washed the disciples’ feet, he put on his robes and returned to his place at the table. He said to them, “Do you know what I’ve done for you? You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and you speak correctly, because I am. If I, your Lord and teacher, have washed your feet, you too must wash each other’s feet. I have given you an example: Just as I have done, you also must do. I assure you, servants aren’t greater than their master, nor are those who are sent greater than the one who sent them. Since you know these things, you will be happy if you do them. I’m not speaking about all of you. I know those whom I’ve chosen. But this is to fulfill the scripture, The one who eats my bread has turned against me.

“I’m telling you this now, before it happens, so that when it does happen you will believe that I Am. I assure you that whoever receives someone I send receives me, and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me.”

John 13:12-20


Confirmation Bias is tough for every person, because the things that we care the most about are the things in which we are least able to see all sides of or be able to change our minds about if we are wrong. This is a part of our nature that makes it harder for us to follow God, and, in the case of the human sexuality debates in the United Methodist Church, harder for people to come to agreement on when they disagree vehemently.


I know some of you will not like the CEB translation here – “change your hearts and lives.” Repent! It just has such a ring to it. But defining repentance is very helpful for us. It is much more than being sorry or feeling bad. It is a commitment to change, to be a new person in Christ. Repentance is lived out by one’s new and different action. Our minds need to be changed before we can become followers of Christ, and our lives as Wesleyan disciples are of a people who are constantly being transformed more and more into the image of Christ (2 Cor 3:18).


But this is really, really hard to do, and we are hardwired against transformational change of mind. There have been countless studies on this, but my favorite is by Kahan, Peters, Dawson, and Slovic, and can be found here. In this study they took hundreds of people and gave them 4 tests. The first was easy – how much do you like math? The second test was to see how good at math they actually were. The third test asked people to self-identify themselves on a political spectrum. The fourth was a test to see where they actually landed on the political spectrum.


They then took half the people to one side and asked them a question about a skin cream. Did applying the cream help or hurt? The math looked like this:



It was not an obvious answer – one had to figure out the percentages, which are:



Not surprisingly, those who were good at math did better at figuring out the question regardless of where they fell on the political spectrum.



As you can see, the blue lines are liberals and the red lines conservatives. Just a side note, the liberals and conservatives did slightly better on this math problem than those in the political middle.


Then the researchers kept the same numbers but made up a different problem. They took the other half of the research group and told them that a city was looking into a gun control measure. That city took a survey of other cities with the same policy they were looking into and asked if crime had gone up or down. Remember – this was a made-up problem. There was no policy and no true data, but the research subjects did not know this. Again, the numbers were the same – the researchers were trying to see if the subjects could still figure out the percentages and answer the question correctly if it dealt with a subject about which people cared deeply. The numbers looked like this:




This time, however, how successful people were figuring out the problem changed dramatically:



The top two lines are the results when the math confirmed their political bias – for liberals, that crime would decrease after the new, more stringent gun control, and for conservatives, that crime would increase. The bottom two lines are what happened when the result went against the person’s expectation depending on one’s political viewpoint on gun control.


The long and the short of it – when we are talking about, thinking about, and discussing things we really care about, we can’t even do math anymore.


Our brains find a way to discard information that goes against our established beliefs. We agree with what we already agree with and we disregard that which doesn’t confirm our already established ideas.


Understanding confirmation bias helps us begin to grasp how useless many of our previous discussions and debates about human sexuality have been. We have gathered small groups of people who care deeply about this issue from one side or the other, have them speak briefly to each other, and then are shocked when they become more entrenched in their views. That is how our brains work. We must change how we discuss, and stop debating the issue of human sexuality, Biblical interpretation, etc.


Instead, we need to enter these conversations with the utmost humility. We must know that we ourselves are sinners who fall short of the glory of God. We have to go into a conversation with an openness to the work of the Holy Spirit possibly being different from our present position. And we have to spend enough time in the conversation so the Truth can appear.


I know some of you have had physical reactions to the last paragraph. You believe your position is Right. The hard truth about humanity is that the person who is closest to Right, the closest to what God is, is still not exactly where God is, or thinking exactly what God thinks. We are all wrong about some aspect of human sexuality, and we need to gather with that kind of humility.


We enter conversations of this type not to defeat the other, but instead to live into being the body of Christ. That requires knowing Christ is our head and that we need the others who are there, even if we hate them or believe they hate us, or if we believe they are completely wrong.


We are commanded by our Lord to wash each other’s feet. Jesus washed Judas’ feet and served him communion. We are commanded to live that kind of life with each other – even those we feel have betrayed us and hurt people. This is the life of a Christian. Jesus washed the feet of, and served communion to, the man who sold him out to die. A man, who in the gospel of John, is not shown to have remorse for his actions. Following Jesus in this matter, though difficult, is not impossible, for Christ is with us. Let us follow the example of our Savior.


By now some of you are seeing just how different a conversation I am calling people to participate in and why the schism in our church at this time would be a great sin. Before we can split we need to have this kind of humble, open, lengthy conversation. To split before we do this would be to abandon our repentance. It would be to refuse the offer of the Holy Spirit for a changed heart and mind. We are invited by Christ to be transformed, to be changed, to have some of our fundamental understandings and actions transformed to be more Christlike. Let’s build a church where this conversation can occur. Join those of us who are willing to take the more difficult way – the way that leads to transformation.

Fundamental Attribution Error, or You Are a Terrible Person

Fundamental Attribution Error, or You Are a Terrible Person

The snake was the most intelligent of all the wild animals that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say that you shouldn’t eat from any tree in the garden?”

The woman said to the snake, “We may eat the fruit of the garden’s trees but not the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden. God said, ‘Don’t eat from it, and don’t touch it, or you will die.’”

The snake said to the woman, “You won’t die! God knows that on the day you eat from it, you will see clearly and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” The woman saw that the tree was beautiful with delicious food and that the tree would provide wisdom, so she took some of its fruit and ate it, and also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. Then they both saw clearly and knew that they were naked. So they sewed fig leaves together and made garments for themselves.

During that day’s cool evening breeze, they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden; and the man and his wife hid themselves from the Lord God in the middle of the garden’s trees. The Lord God called to the man and said to him, “Where are you?”

The man replied, “I heard your sound in the garden; I was afraid because I was naked, and I hid myself.”

He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Did you eat from the tree, which I commanded you not to eat?”

The man said, “The woman you gave me, she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate.”

The Lord God said to the woman, “What have you done?!”

And the woman said, “The snake tricked me, and I ate.”

Genesis 3:1-13


We in the United Methodist Church tend to have a high anthropology, or view of the human condition. I, for good or ill, fall on the other side. A former District Superintendent once told me he believes I have the lowest anthropology in the Iowa Conference. I do believe my low anthropology can be used for the benefit of the church at this point in time, because when we speak to each other now we do not seem to come from the position of a sinner who does not know all the truth. We instead speak from positions of intense righteousness. We must remember that we are sinners, and we have faults, and those faults arise in our fights and talks about human sexuality. In this post and in the next we will discuss two ways our sin arises when we disagree with each other – the Fundamental Attribution Error and Confirmation Bias.


Fundamental Attribution Error is a high dollar phrase but it basically means that we tend to give ourselves a pass when something bad happens and blame it on the world around us (such as Adam blaming Eve, and Eve blaming the snake, and neither taking any personal responsibility), yet when someone else does something bad or hurtful we blame his or her innate character (he or she did this because he or she is a bad person who cannot help but be hurtful and bad). Just think for a little bit and see just how often this error has arisen in our discussions at Annual or General Conferences, in blogs, magazines, and much, much more. If you cannot remember seeing it, I am sorry, but it is because you are caught in the Fundamental Attribution Error.


Fundamental Attribution Error is easy to find in the Bible. In Joshua 22 the rest of Israel misinterprets why Ruben, Gad, and the half tribe of Manasseh built an altar and come within a hairs breadth of war. David sends people to give condolences to the new King of Ammonites upon the death of his father, but the new king misreads the purpose of David’s people and makes very, very bad decisions (1 Chronicles 19). The disciples have issues with each other. We misinterpret motives, and we misinterpret the place those motives come from. If we don’t admit this fault we create more and more contention.


It is rare, even in our most volatile debates, that someone is intentionally trying to wound someone else. We sometimes believe there is a need to speak the truth of justice or declare the correct interpretation of Scripture, to which others take offense. We have negative histories with each other and take speeches or posts as personal insults. We feel so strongly someone is wrong we get really mad at him or her and fall into interpretive hostility instead of interpretive charity (see my previous post). But in none of the instances described above was there a deliberate effort to hurt another person.


We engage in the Fundamental Attribution Error in other ways as well. A lack of understanding of the other person’s theology causing us to come to worst case conclusions. Sometimes we get caught up and want to “win”, and in the process lose our objectivity. Past hurts cause us to believe what has happened is related to past hurts when it is not. Also, any time we fall into believing someone did x simply because they are inherently this way, we have fallen into the Fundamental Attribution Error.


When we believe the other is irredeemably bad and you can’t even talk with them we have fallen away from being Christ in the world. When we believe the other person is inherently bad so we get to be terrible to them, instead of loving our enemy, we have fallen away from being Christ in the world. Jesus does not believe this or act like this, thank God. We should work hard figuring out what is Right, but when we do so we cannot fall into the trap of dismissing others, and the Fundamental Attribution Error makes us fall into that trap.


We need to acknowledge with humility that we are sinful people who struggle with this issue. It is not just about the other person being wrong, it is about us misinterpreting what he or she says and his or her reason for saying it. Recognizing and admitting our issues with the Fundamental Attribution Error will help us forgive, reconcile, and speak well with each other. Then we can look to the logs in our own eye, be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to grow angry.