A friend recently recommended the book Detroit: an American autopsy to me, saying that he thought I’d find it engaging and insightful. Of course, I’ve read the headlines about Detroit. And I seem to remember watching some news program where the person explained how Detroit is a great example of what happens when we leave capitalism unfettered. And then a different friend said to me, when I told him about the book I’m preparing to read, “Detroit is the best case for conservatism.”
I don’t know much about Detroit and why it is the way it is, but this know: we see what we want to see. And it takes an incredible amount of discipline and self-awareness to do otherwise.
Whether in politics, relationships or (perhaps especially) in religion, we tend to notice, emphasize and remember details that confirm what we already believe. Psychologists call this tendency confirmation bias. The idea behind confirmation bias, or what a 2009 Wall Street Journal article called “The Yes-Man in Your Head,” is that we are essentially lazy thinkers and it’s easier to assimilate information that confirms what we already think rather than go through the rigorous work of investigating other possibilities.
This is why most political conservatives tend to watch FOX News, liberals read Mother Jones and we tend to seek advice from our friends who think the same way we do or only frequent the bar that airs Cubs games.
My concern with confirmation bias is that it intersects my world on a daily basis. Theologians of various denominational stripes read the same passages and come to almost opposite conclusions. One person whom I respect reads a book and finds it brilliant and another person, equally respected, finds it full of half-truths and intentionally misleading.
And while I have my own confirmation biases, this is the struggle I have every week, preparing to deliver a talk to the people in my church. Of course I look at passages in a certain way. Of course I resonate with some authors over others. Where am I giving in to the “yes-man in my head?” It’s hard work, this attempt to see things as they are, and not just see what I want to see.
And so, in my life I’m trying to combat confirmation bias. I watch John Stewart, listen to NPR, and read George Will. I generally try, in the course of Bible study, to read liberals and conservatives. I try to create a gracious space around me that welcomes those who think differently than I. And I even associate with Cardinals fans.
For me, the most important part of combatting confirmation bias is forging emotional bonds with people different from I. You can have your opinions about gay marriage, but when you have a deep emotional connection to a gay couple, you’ll probably think differently. You can build straw men of reformed theologians only until you know a gracious, loving Calvinist who doesn’t fit into your straw man straitjacket.
[Here’s an unabashed plug for my church: this is the culture we’re trying to create at Imago Dei – one where we’re willing to own our confirmation biases an environment where, compelled by love, we seek to first like, then understand those who think/live differently than I. It’s what I’m most excited about pastoring the church I do.]
And, by the way, my guess, before I’ve even started the book, is that the reasons for Detroit’s demise are complicated and can’t be simply reduced to either unfettered capitalism or the welfare state. If I had to make an a priori guess, I’d probably say that Detroit represents a perfect storm of many factors that have led to it’s implosion. And the same is true of God. Almost every doctrinal belief is more nuanced, complicated and difficult to understand than one might first think from the safety of one’s own confirmation bias.