Humility and Confirmation Bias

Guest post by Kris Zyp

Humility in regards to our own knowledge is a valuable trait. Unfortunately, the vast majority of us spend the majority of our time confirming our own answers, rather than asking the appropriate questions. Disdain for arrogance is hardly unique, it would seem most of humanity is wired to dislike arrogance to some degree. Know-it-alls don’t usually have many friends. Yet surprisingly we are still terribly prone to overconfidence in our beliefs. Psychologists have repeatedly verified a phenonomen known as confirmation bias. Confirmation bias is the natural human tendency to interpret all information in a way that will confirm what we already believe.

This is a major stumbling block to honest pursuit of knowledge. One that only regards one perspective is like a jury that only hears the plantiff’s or defense’s arguments. Obviously such a jury can not reach any well founded conclusion. How are we likely to reach an objective conclusion unless we resist the urges of confirmation bias?

Ironically, the things we feel most certain about, are the beliefs that we are most prone to be wrong about. Why? Quite simply these are beliefs that we are least likely to seek multiple, balanced perspectives about. Politically, are you conservative? Do you primarily watch Fox news. Are you liberal? Do you primarily read liberal blogs? If you are Christian have you spent anytime seeking to understand Islam or Athiestic apologetics? If you believe in pre-tribulation, do you understand the Biblical basis for amillennialism? Or do you, like most people, simply watch news, read books and blogs that already align with your current thoughts? Do you feed yourself a steady stream of ideas that affirm your own, or do you ever look to challenge your own ideas? And if so, how are you actually moving any closer to a multiple perspectives necessary to properly evaluate conflicting arguments?

To put it bluntly, if you have taken a position on an issue, and can’t provide a well articulated defense of the opposing position, your opinion isn’t worth any more than a jury’s after only hearing the plantiff’s arguments.

This type of narrow mindedness is commonplace in politics. In fact research on confirmation bias has often point to politics as the quintessential area where individuals became so entrenched as to completely ignore facts (much less consider) that contradict their views. This has become increasingly evident in the currently highly partisan of politics. Partly lines are drawn, and people manage to be believe that their party is right on every single issue and the opposing party is wrong on every issue by feeding themselves a constant stream of one sided rhetoric, despite the absurdity of such a notion.

Confirmation bias is also particularly problematic in the church, where faith and certainty are frequently confused. Hebrews 11:1 delineates these. Certainty is a claim of knowledge that dismisses alternate possibilities. Faith is a reaction to a belief that alters ones actions (James clearly articulates this, dismissing faith without accompanying action as dead). These are orthogonal concepts. Unfortunately American Christians seem to demonstrate more (disenguous) certainty than faith.

A common criticism of acknowleding uncertainty is that we would end up in a sea of questions without any real truths to guide us. Without truths, there is nothing to act on. Life is empty of meaning, just filled with questions. Again this argument is based on the inability to differentiate between faith and certainty. Living with uncertainty and questions is not an excuse for inaction. In fact the most noble of actions are often those performed without guarantees. The most momentous heroic actions and decisions in history were never made without risk, without facing at least some level of possible loss.

Certainty itself is not a bad thing as long as it is genuine. I am rather certain that I am sitting in front of my computer right now. However disingenous certainty is quite ugly. In a church that does not distinguish faith from certainty, a pressure towards greater faith can quickly push people into claims to certainty that are not in line with the actual evidence or encounters that person has truly experienced or observed. There are certainly those with experiences with God that give them greater certainty. However there is nothing inherently holy about having great certainty. On the otherhand, there is nothing worse than manufactered certainty. Furthermore, Vince Eccles has a great post on how mystery and hiddenness are key attributes of God according to scripture, not just God’s inability to reveal himself.

We truly need to have humility in our perspective on God. A key lesson from anthropology is the incredible extent to which we process information through a cultural lense. This is further analyzed in epistemology (the study of knowledge and how we acquire it) which demonstrates the various means by which we sort out information, all quite fallible.

This humility is crucial in combating our natural tendency towards confirmation bias. Our innate feelings of being right obstruct our ability to pursue truth and objectivity, generate arrogance, and create a dishonest sense of certainty in our beliefs. Humility in knowledge, on the otherhand, gives the opportunity to continually move forward in our knowledge, portrays an honest sense of the limits of our knowledge and aligns properly with a right view of our mysterious God, beyond our comprehension.

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3 responses to “Humility and Confirmation Bias

  1. From Dad: Right on! Good thinking, proud of you!
    From Mom: But I AM right! I concede partially to your reasoning but need to sort out where absolutes fit in. At least I am not such a fool as to think I could hold my own in a debate with YOU!! Great job!
    You made Dad’s day by giving voice and words to this very topic!!

  2. Mom, absolutes do fit in, of course, but we have to acknowledge our limits in fully comprehending them (only God fully comprehends everything), Isaiah 59:9.

  3. Pingback: Frustration and Growth — Kari Patterson

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