Cognitive biases and the way we interpret the Bible.

Earlier this year, I completed the introductory subject to Flinders University’s Graduate Diploma in Higher Education. One of the lectures focussed on cognitive biases and assessment. Essentially, a cognitive bias is a “systematic error in judgement and decision making common to all human beings which can be due to cognitive limitations, motivational factors, and/or adaptations to natural environments” (Wilke and Mata, 2012: 531). As we were discussing the potential influence of these biases on the way we grade student’s work, I was struck by the ways in which they might also influence the way we interpret the Bible.

Let me give you one example.

Confirmation bias is defined as “the tendency to selectively search for or interpret information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions or hypotheses” (Wilke and Mata, 2012: 532).  As the quote indicates, people usually display this bias in one of two ways:

  1. They engage in a biased search for information – when people gather information, they tend to do so selectively, searching for evidence that is consistent with their current hypothesis.
  2. They engaged in biased interpretation of the evidence – people tend to interpret information in a way that supports their pre-existing position or beliefs. This is particularly noticeable when we look at the way people handle ambiguous information, which is characteristically taken to be supportive of the individual’s existing position, even though it could be used to argue for or against this.

A good example of confirmation bias is the debate over gun control that unfortunately and sadly seems to come up every few months in the United States. Someone who is in favour of stricter gun controls will tend to seek out news stories that reaffirm the need for limitations on gun ownership, and interpret any facts / data they are given in a way that supports their beliefs that the rules around gun ownership need to be toughened. Someone who is adamantly opposed to gun control, on the other hand, will seek out news sources that are more closely aligned with their position, and will interpret the facts / data in a different way.

Researchers have suggested that the effect of confirmation bias is stronger for emotionally charged issues and for deeply entrenched beliefs (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Confirmation_bias). Therefore, we would expect it to be a significant factor when it comes to biblical interpretation, which is often dealing with issues which are emotionally significant (such as loss, grief, life after death, etc.) and has to do with deeply-held beliefs.

I can see at least two ways in which confirmation bias might influence biblical interpreters:

  1. i) we will tend to interpret the Bible selectively, focussing on those passages which support our pre-existing beliefs while downplaying those that may run counter to this. Just think, for example, of the way that Armenians and Calvinists tend to emphasize different biblical texts while ignoring others.
  2. ii) we will tend to interpret passages in a way that supports our pre-existing theological beliefs. We will also tend to interpret given passages in the light of what we already think they say (i.e., our interpretation will conform with our pre-existing understanding of the passage’s meaning).

Can you think of any other examples?

I am currently working on an article which discusses the influence of cognitive biases on biblical interpretation, and may return to this topic in future blog posts.

Reference

Wilke, A. and Mata, R. (2012) “Cognitive Bias,” in V.S. Ramachandran (ed.) The Encyclopedia of Human Behavior, vol 1, pp. 531-535. Academic Press.

Dr Aaron Chalmers

Head of School- Ministry, Theology and Culture

Tabor Adelaide

Advertisements

4 thoughts on “Cognitive biases and the way we interpret the Bible.

  1. Unfortunately, Aaron, this bias is not only prevalent amongst readers of the various English versions of the Bible but also by the actual translators themselves. The difference between the initial version of the NIV and the current one highlight this. (Fortunately, I believe that the later version is much better, but maybe that’s my cognitive bias showing!). 🙂

  2. I’d agree, John. Since all translation is essentially an act of interpretation, we should expect translations to exhibit this. Since translators usually work as a committee, however, it may be that the members help to correct each other somewhat, but this only really works if the committee is disparate in nature (and this certainly isn’t the case for all translations!) Thanks for commenting.

    • The good thing about this bias in translations is that it drives me back to the original language; which is fine for me, as one who enjoys the process, but is really hard for those who don’t have the access or the willingness to go down that road (that is, most in our congregations). Even amongst preachers there seems to be a tendency to take a particular translation at face value, leading to some very limited (and sometimes distorted) views being offered as if they are the Gospel itself! O for more thorough and orthodox hermeneutics/homiletics! 🙂

  3. … or indeed to go to several translations and compare and contrast the way in which each translating group has attacked a passage. Potentially this gives us the broadest possible learning from the passage because we get to understand – and take on board – many different aspects from very learned people than we can possibly hope to assimilate ourselves.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s