In my last blog post I introduced the topic of cognitive biases and the influence these may have on biblical interpretation. Of course, cognitive biases are not restricted to academic endeavours; they impact many aspects of our lives.
One of my favourite cognitive biases is the Gambler’s Fallacy. This has been defined as “the tendency to think that future probabilities are changed by past events, when in reality they are unchanged.” (Wilke and Mata, 2012: 532). This definition probably doesn’t mean all that much to you, but I’m sure you’ll understand what I’m talking about if I give you a quick example.
Imagine there is a person in a casino who has been playing roulette for a while. They have spun the wheel three times and three times red had come up. The fallacy comes in to play when the gambler thinks that black is more likely to come up next, because there have been three reds in a row, and given that there is a 50% chance of either coming up, we are “due” for a red.
In reality, what is the chance of black coming up on any spin?
Is there an increased chance of black coming up simply because we have had three reds come up beforehand?
Does the “universe” somehow carry a memory of past results which need to be balanced out?
No, but it is surprising to consider how often we are influenced by this kind of thinking.
When it comes to biblical interpretation, a cognitive bias we need to be aware of is functional fixedness. This “limits a person to using an object only in the way it is traditionally used.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Functional_fixedness).
Functional fixedness is basically a “mental block” against using an object in a new or innovative fashion, even though this may be required in order to solve a problem. Someone who is influenced by this bias will be unable to move past the original purpose of the item. For example, if someone needs a paperweight, but they only have a hammer, they may not see how the hammer can be used as a paperweight.
(If you’re after a funny clip for functional fixedness go here)
When you think about it, our brain’s tendency to create strong linkages between an object and its function is incredibly useful. Such mental shortcuts allow us to quickly and efficiently determine a practical use for an object. Imagine, for example, if every time you opened a toolbox you had to sort through and analyze every item to find one that could be used to loosen a screw. Due to functional fixedness, however, you are able to quickly grab the screwdriver and get to work.
How might we see this cognitive bias influence biblical exegesis? Functional fixedness comes in to play when we encounter a familiar passage and can only see one way the text may be applied. We are unable to move beyond this initial impression; and instead return to the traditional / standard application. Functional fixedness may block us from hearing and applying the text in a new or fresh fashion, even though this may be required by our changing context.
How might you overcome this cognitive bias?
What do you think?
I plan to tackle the issue of debiasing in a subsequent post, but I’m keen to hear your thoughts.
 Technically, there is a 49% chance of red or black coming up, as there is one green number in addition to the 18 reds and 18 blacks.
Dr Aaron Chalmers
Head of School – Ministry, Theology and Culture