Cognitive biases part 3

imagesAs we continue our series on cognitive biases, I thought I’d begin with one that is a little quirky – the Ikea Effect. This is defined as “the tendency for people to place a disproportionately high value on objects that they partially assembled themselves, such as furniture from IKEA, regardless of the quality of the end result.”[1] Come on, you know you suffer from this one!

Cognitive psychologists have demonstrate that self-assembly impacts the evaluation of a product by its consumers. Their studies suggest that when people use their own labour to construct a particular product, even if done badly, they value the end result more than if they had not put any effort into its creation.[2]

To test this, researchers gave their subjects the task of assembling some IKEA furniture. Participants were then asked to price their furniture, along with some identical pieces which had come pre-assembled. In a series of experiments, they demonstrated that people attach greater value to things they built than the very same product that was built by someone else. In fact, the studies showed that the subjects were willing to pay 63% more for the former.[3] This is particularly surprising given the quality of the assembled furniture I know I usually produce!

When it comes to biblical interpretation, a cognitive bias that may be influential is the illusory truth effect. This essentially involves the tendency of people to identify a statement as true simply because they have heard it before, irrespective of its actual truthfulness. In other words, people have a tendency to believe information to be true simply because they have been exposed to it previously; we are more likely to believe a familiar statement than an unfamiliar one.[4]

This effect was first identified in a 1977 study in which participants were given a list of sixty plausible historical factoids, which they were required to identify as true or false on a scale from one (definitely false) to seven (definitely true). [5] Examples of the factoids include “The People’s Republic of China was founded in 1947” (false, it was established in 1949), “Lithium is the lightest of all metals” (true), and “The largest museum in the world is the Louvre in Paris” (false, either the Hermitage Museum in Saint-Petersburg, Russia or the Smithsonian could lay claim to this title).

The participants were required to take a total of three such tests, with a two week gap between each. Of the sixty factoids included in each test, twenty were repeated and forty were new. The researchers discovered that participants increased their rating of the truthfulness of the repeated statements across the three tests: in the first test these statements were given a mean truthfulness rating of 4.35, which increased to 4.67 in the second test and 4.74 in the last. Their belief that the statement was true increased on each occasion they encountered the repeated information. This effect was particularly noticeable when contrasted with the forty new questions in each test; the mean truthfulness rating for these factoids did not increase over time (4.25 in the first test, followed by 4.22 in the second and 4.13 in the third).

This effect may result in exegetes thinking that a certain interpretation of a passage is correct simply because they have encountered it before, especially if they have encountered it on numerous occasions. In other words, interpreters are likely to adopt as their default understanding of the passage, the interpretation with which they are familiar. While this may be appropriate, a tendency to uncritically default to the popular understanding can be problematic. Consider, for example, the common suggestion that Matthew 19: 24 (“Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”) refers to an actual gate in Jerusalem called the “Eye of the Needle” through which a camel could only pass if it stooped down and had all its baggage removed.[6] Although such an interpretation may have been repeated oft-times throughout history (it seems to date back at least to the fifteenth century, and possibly even the ninth), there is no historical or archaeological evidence that such a gate existed; its “existence” appears only to have been accepted due to the repetition of the story. Thus, while such an interpretation may have made great sermon material – which is perhaps the reason for its frequent repetition in the first place – it is, at best, an illusory truth.

In my next post, I plan to look at how we can perhaps reduce the influence of some of these biases.





[4] I. M. Begg, A. Anas, and S. Farinacci. “Dissociation of Processes In Belief: Source Recollection, Statement Familiarity, and the Illusion of Truth,” Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 121/4 (1992): 446-58.

[5] L. Hasher, D. Goldstein, and T. Toppino, “Frequency and the Conference of Referential Validity,” Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior 16 (1977): 107-12.

[6] See, for example, W. Barclay, The Gospel of Matthew: Vol 2, rev ed (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1975), 217.


Dr Aaron Chalmers

Head of School, Ministry, Theology and Culture



  1. Rod Lampard · December 1, 2015

    Aaron, would you say that the content of most “memes” factor into the category of illusory truth? If so, would you see them as contributing to the entrenchment of certain areas of cognitive bias.

    • draaronchalmers · December 3, 2015

      Hi Rod, not sure if “memes” are any more problematic than other sources of information – apart from the fact that they are usually so memorable 🙂

      Did you have a particular example in mind?

  2. Ian Adams · December 1, 2015

    Re Matthew 19:24 story. Had a similar experience when College Principal told similar background explanation to John 14:17. Having researched the details, it just wasn’t true. Disillusionment with Principal and Theological education ensued.

  3. Anthony Bondarenko · December 1, 2015

    Upon brief reflection, I think it seems as though the exegetical process has a very real potential to lend itself to encouraging these sorts of biases. Not only this, but I feel that more often than not, this is the case.

    For instance, in order to exegete, one must carefully observe, analyse and research in dialogue with others in order to, in essence, personally assemble constituent parts to effect an essentially “Ikea” sermon/interpretation. This causes one to hold confidence in their personal interpretation because *they* have done the necessary reading – *they* have spent the necessary hours setting up the proverbial Ikea table.

    Furthermore, the exegete will likely fall back upon consensus understandings, explicated by the commentators, so as to not fall out of the borders of doctrinal orthodoxy. For instance, take the example of the proponents of the New Perspective. Why do they come under such ire? Because, in essence, they don’t agree with Luther. They don’t agree with Calvin, or Zwingli. They look too much like Roman Catholicism.

    Putting this in the context of a undergraduate exegetical subject, I doubt any fledgling undergraduate in their right mind would have the confidence nor the audacity to dare oppose scholars such as Brueggeman, Carson, Wright or Goldingay (to name a few), and as such, are likely to defer to their understanding (which is generally the primary source of reference for most sermon material, asides from the Bible itself)

    The irony behind all of this is that in order to avoid the biases above (or at least the first) they end up confirming these biases; and part of the prevalent attitude that I’ve noticed, at least amongst evangelicals, is that if you suggest something that’s innovative (and by innovative, I mean something not in line with the Reformation) you’ve eisegeted somehow, usually holding to the first bias of some sort.

    Would you agree with this analysis? What would you suggest breaking out of this cycle entails? Furthermore, how would you encourage innovation in such a way?

    • draaronchalmers · December 3, 2015

      Interesting thoughts, Anthony. I guess my initial response is that the exegetical process itself is meant to cut down on these biases influencing us in the first place. Many of the biases actually result from the fact that we engage in intuitive rather than critically reflective thinking, and having an exegetical method which we works through ensures we approach the passage carefully, rather than simply defaulting to what someone said in the past, or what the popular interpretation of a passage might be (not that either of these things may necessarily be wrong).

      The other comment I would make relates to your reflections on the illusory truth effect. Yes, we will be dependent on others – especially as we are starting out on our exegetical journey. For me, the key thing is trying to figure out who we are going to be dependent on. Are these people we can trust? Are these people reliable? Do they know their stuff? If so, then it’s probably worth listening to them.

      At the same time, however, I strongly believe that we need to view these people as our conversation partners. So we listen to them, we respect, but we don’t necessarily have to agree with them. As I try to say in my exegetical classes, I want to hear what you think the passage is saying.

      Re. innovation – haters are gonna hate (especially when they think the purity of the gospel is under attack)! I don’t see an easy way to overcome this, it’s part of the way academia tends to work – you have your advocates, you have your opponents; it’s part of robust scholarly discourse. Part of it is learning to develop a thick skin (and being confident that your own interpretation is, in fact, faithful). In terms of encouraging innovation, if we look at the example of the NP, this essentially involves a willingness to (a) study the background material, and (b) ask new (and sometimes probing) questions. But the funny thing, of course, it that the NP itself is – if it’s correct – the exact opposite of innovation. It’s trying to get back to what Paul was saying in the first place.

      Some big questions, which are difficult to answer in a blog post!

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