Confirmation Bias

Photo Credit: Nina Matthews Photography via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: Nina Matthews Photography via Compfight cc

Most people seem to have a natural resistance to change. When new information comes along, they try to fit in this information into whatever belief systems and worldviews they already have. Rather than change their beliefs, they would rather filter the information to fit their beliefs. As Warren Buffett onced observed, “What the human being is best at doing is interpreting new information so that their prior conclusions remain intact.”

This is what is called confirmation bias, one of the most devious roots of erroneous thinking. Sometimes, it is quite harmless but at others, it can affect major decisions one makes in life.

When a man is so in love with a woman for example (or vice versa), he may tend to look only at her positive qualities as proof that she is indeed the one for him, while glossing over other less-desirable traits, passing them off as exceptions to the rule.

When they get married, however, these traits come to foreground and irritate him to no end. Then he says, “But you weren’t like that before!” Actually, she probably was, but confirmation bias was so strong at that time that he tended not to notice it.

As a religious person before, I am aware of how strongly confirmation bias can affect one’s beliefs and one’s thinking. It is precisely this factor which makes it so difficult to convert someone from one belief to another, or to unbelief, for that matter. A person would rather find a way to harmonize new data into his belief system than to change the belief system itself.

For example, I grew up being taught that God is love, justice, compassion, etc. When I learned to read the Bible, I gravitated towards the verses that reflected this teaching. When I encountered questionable stories or verses, I would ask my pastor what this meant and he would explain them in such a way that fit into the paradigm of what God was supposed to be like. So passages that sound strange to me now did not sound that strange to me then. In fact, they only added to the “unfathomable mystery” of God, making him all the more worthy of worship because my feeble mind could not ever hope to comprehend him.

So let me give you a selection of passages from the book of Deuteronomy, unedited and uncommented, as is, where is, and let’s see how you react to them. What kind of a God gives these kinds of commands?

“If anyone secretly entices you—even if it is your brother, your father’s son or your mother’s son, or your own son or daughter, or the wife you embrace, or your most intimate friend—saying, ‘Let us go worship other gods,’…you must not yield to or heed any such persons. Show them no pity or compassion and do not shield them. But you shall surely kill them; your own hand shall be first against them to execute them, and afterwards the hand of all the people. Stone them to death for trying to turn you away from the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.  Then all Israel shall hear and be afraid, and never again do any such wickedness.” (Deuteronomy 13:6-11)

“When you draw near to a town to fight against it, offer it terms of peace. If it accepts your terms of peace and surrenders to you, then all the people in it shall serve you at forced labor. If it does not submit to you peacefully, but makes war against you, then you shall besiege it; and when the Lord your God gives it into your hand, you shall put all its males to the sword. You may, however, take as your booty the women, the children, livestock, and everything else in the town, all its spoil.” (Deuteronomy 20:10-14)

“If someone has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey his father and mother, who does not heed them when they discipline him, then his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his town at the gate of that place. They shall say to the elders of his town, ‘This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious. He will not obey us. He is a glutton and a drunkard.’ Then all the men of the town shall stone him to death.” (Deuteronomy 21:18-21)

“If men get into a fight with one another, and the wife of one intervenes to rescue her husband from the grip of his opponent by reaching out and seizing his genitals, you shall cut off her hand; show no pity.” (Deuteronomy 25:11-12)

Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

Questions? Comments? Suggestions? Violent Reactions? Send me an email at andy@freethinking.me. View past articles at www.freethinking.me.

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2 thoughts on “Confirmation Bias”

  1. Often, our bias as free thinkers is to also read certain sections in the bible such as these in a certain way, a way that affirms some of our ideas, such as the idea of a flawed, violent, and at once immature God.

    But how many people read the footnotes and explanatory notes at cross-referenced editions of the Bible such as the New American Bible that explain the context and culture of the writing of some verses? Or how many have read the introduction at the same edition that tells people, whether they’re reading as believers or skeptics not to take everything in the bible literally, that it is often an attempt by a specific culture to grasp the mystery of existence, and in the process, on the God they profess to believe in?

  2. Deuteronomy 13:6-11
    In earlier posts (at least in the order that i read them), you talked about how God should make Himself unequivocally known to everyone. This example is from a period of time when everyone saw the miracles of the exodus. With ancient Israel, they had a community mindset. Sort of like if your eye causes you to sin, remove your eye. Or, like if the leader of your country starts to persuade the nation to start exterminating people because of their ethnicity. If someone saved your life from slavery and bondage and set you up with a plush life, why would you listen to someone who “secretly enticed” you to spit in their face and go and praise someone else for what you did?
    Deuteronomy 20:10-14
    I would say that the twons that were being invaded did many terrible things, including sacrificing their children to false kids by burning them in fire, along with many other horrible acts. They were given a long time to repent and change their ways. Offering peace was the first resort. I sure hope the alternative of live and let live doesn’t apply here. If someone is convicted of murder, their sentance os usually different if they have remorse for what they did. That seems logical and consistant with what happened here. Saving widows and orphans doesn’t seem like a bad thing either. And, well, what else would you like them to do with the livestock? If you read further, Israel was judged the same way later on, too. So I would say God was consistent in His dealings with people.
    Deuteronomy 21:18-21
    Again, seeing the Israelites as a community focused lot, if you look at the actual language, this is a son who pulls everyone around him down. A freeloader who doesn’t even care about himself. It is not a one-time mistake, but a lofe long chossing to be this way. One where the son will not and does not leave the community and go off to some other community.
    Deuteronomy 25:11-12
    Fighting is not good. Loving in the real world, it happens. It is even worse when fighting unfairly. Even worse, touching another man’s privates, especially with the intent of harm and doing so in a way that prevents a man from fathering children that he most likely wants, what kind of punishment would you propose?
    As far as Paolo’s comments go, I rhink he hit the nail on the head when he talked about conirmation bias taking passages like these to try to confirm an already held belief. Like the posts, I, too, had many questions like these. And found logical answers to every single question I had and to many questions I had not evwn thought of already. I good thing I learned was to find out that these books were written for us, but not to us. Meaning, check the footnotes, introductions, concordances, and so on. What was the culture like? Where were their mindsets?

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