Why We Don’t Change Our Minds: Confirmation Bias

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…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.