Overcoming Cognitive Biases

Last year, I wrote a couple of posts on the influence of cognitive biases on biblical interpretation (see here and here). The good news is that the article I was writing has been accepted for publication with the Bulletin for Biblical Research, and should be published shortly. In this post, I thought I would propose four possible ways to  reduce or eliminate the impact of these biases, keeping in mind that that there is no single, one-size-fits-all response and that the approach to debiasing that one adopts needs to reflect the nature and causation of the bias itself.

  • Develop an understanding of the nature of key cognitive biases and their potential influence – sometimes an awareness of the potential problem may be enough to stop it occurring in the first place. For example, an understanding of confirmation bias, particularly that we have a tendency to look for evidence which supports our pre-existing interpretation of a passage, should encourage us to be more self-aware when engaging in our exegetical work, and to avoid simply defaulting to that which we already think to be true.
  • “Consider the opposite” – this cognitive strategy consists of nothing more than simply asking oneself, “What are some reasons that my initial judgement might be wrong?”[1] This strategy – which forces the interpreter to seriously entertain the possibility that the opposite of what they think might actually be true – is effective because it directs us to contrary evidence and alternative hypotheses that would not otherwise be considered. Given this broader pool of evidence, we are less likely simply to default automatically to our pre-existing understanding or the popular interpretation of a passage.
  • Involve others in our interpretive work – sharing our interpretations with others is likely to be a beneficial activity, especially if the “others” belong to different groups from ourselves. Due to the automatic and unconscious nature of many of the cognitive biases, some psychologists have argued that it is difficult – if not impossible – for us to recognise and reduce their influence on our own work. Other people, however, may be able to highlight their presence in our thinking and help us address them.

If we are unable to share our thinking with others, it is still worth carefully considering how we would justify or defend our interpretive stance to others. This pre-emptive self criticism may be helpful for overcoming some biases. “In preparation for justifying their decisions to others, decision makers anticipate the flaws in their own arguments, thereby improving their decision processes and outcomes.”[2] This incentive enhances one’s motivation to examine the evidence thoughtfully, thereby promoting less perfunctory processing of information.

4)  Ensure we have adequate time to complete our exegetical work. Time pressures (and stress) tend to increase the effect of cognitive biases. Although our minds have different coping mechanisms that kick in when we are forced to work under time restrictions, it is clear that “the accuracy of human judgements decreases under time pressure…”.[3] Practically, what tends to happen is that our minds become increasingly selective in terms of the information they taken in (we adopt a narrower focus and don’t consider things as broadly as we perhaps should), and tend to “lock in” on a particular interpretation, decreasing our openness to alternative possibilities. Therefore, it is essential that we allow ourselves sufficient space to accomplish our exegetical tasks.

I hope this is helpful for you. It’s worth keeping in mind that cognitive biases not only impact biblical interpretation, but many situations where judgement and decision making (hence, much of life!) is required. So trying to minimise their influence is not only important for exegesis but also for making good decisions at work, at home, and in our churches. If you are interested in exploring this topic further, then “The Art of Thinking Clearly” by Rolf Dobelli is a good place to start.

Dr Aaron Chalmers- Head of School, Ministry, Theology and Culture, Tabor- College of Higher Education.


[1] R. P. Larrick, “Debiasing,” in Blackwell Handbook of Judgment and Decision Making, ed. D. Koehler and N. Harvey (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2004), 323.

[2] Larrick, “Debiasing,” 322.

[3] A. Edlund and O. Svenson, “Judgment and Decision Making Under Time Pressure: Studies and Findings,” in Time Pressure and Stress in Human Judgment and Decision Making, ed. O. Svenson and A. Maule (New York: Plenum Press, 1993), 36.




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