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Confirmation Bias

Learning How to See

Confirmation Bias
Tuesday, March 2, 2021

One of the phrases that has stayed with me from studying Latin in the seminary is “Quidquid recipitur ad modum recipientis recipitur.” This statement is not only kind of fun to say, but it has been critical to my understanding of how we process information. Directly translated, it means “Whatever is received is received according to the manner of the receiver.” Thirteenth-century scholastics such as John Duns Scotus (1266–1308) and Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) intuited this. It was early psychology before we thought we had psychology! What it means, in other words, is that we don’t see things as they are; we see things as we are. We see the things we want to see, the things that confirm our assumptions and our preferred way of looking at the world. [1] Brian elaborates today on how confirmation bias, which he believes is the most powerful, operates:

We all have filters, [such as] What do I already believe? Does this new idea or piece of information confirm what I already think? Does it fit in the frame I’ve already constructed?

If so, I can accept it.

If not, in all likelihood, I’m simply going to reject it as unreasonable and unbelievable, even though doing so is, well, unreasonable.

I do this, not to be ignorant, but to be efficient. My brain (without my conscious awareness, and certainly without my permission) makes incredibly quick decisions as it evaluates incoming information or ideas. Ideas that fit in are easy and convenient to accept, and they give me pleasure because they confirm what I already think.

But ideas that don’t fit easily will require me to think, and think twice, and maybe even rethink some of my long-held assumptions. That kind of thinking is hard work. It requires a lot of time and energy. My brain has a lot going on, so it interprets hard work like this as pain. . . .

Wanting to save me from that extra reframing work, my brain presses a “reject” or “delete” button when a new idea presents itself. “I’ll stick with my current frame, thank you very much,” it says. And it gives me a little jolt of pleasure to reward me for my efficiency. [2]

The Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis, who is Brian’s and my mutual friend, speaks of confirmation bias in this way: 

“We are all wired by what we’ve experienced to be in search of a story with an
ending . . . that feels like it has a completion. And the stories that we gravitate to are the ones that make sense to us, stories that fit, stories that feel like they have continuity, connection to the past, where we’ve been. . . . Those stories that we will follow are the ones that feel true, feel like they have continuity to our past and that resonate with the trajectory of our lives. So, we’re looking for the story that doesn’t necessarily change our minds; we’re actually looking for the story that confirms what’s in our minds.” [3]

References:
[1] Adapted from Brian McLaren, Jacqui Lewis, with Richard Rohr, “Why Can’t We See?,” October 5, 2020, in Learning How to See, episode 1 (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2020), podcast, MP3 audio.

[2] Brian McLaren, Why Don’t They Get It? Overcoming Bias in Others (and Yourself) (Self-published: 2019), [15–16].

[3] Jacqui Lewis, “Why Can’t We See?” podcast.

Story from Our Community:
A dear friend introduced me to Richard Rohr’s meditations. At first, I was a bit confused by the ideology of a universal Christ. I was raised Protestant and had God packed neatly into the Ten Commandments. I’ve learned the importance of emptying myself out so that there’s more room for Christ in my heart. Once I began to empty my cup full of ego and fill it with Holy water, the Holy Spirit brought my spiritual senses to life. —Stacey H.

Image credit: U.S. Information Agency. Press and Publications Service. ca. 1953–ca. 1978, Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C. Two long lines of some of the buses used to transport marchers to Washington (detail), photograph, public domain.
Image inspiration: Much of the work of dismantling systems of oppression involves a continued willingness to learn new ways of seeing. The March on Washington in 1963, where this image was taken, became a major tipping point in the United States’ collective story of learning how to see. May we continue the work of our ever-unfolding ability to see, understand, and act.
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