Confirmation bias

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By Andy Uyboco

Freethinking Me

Thursday, November 20, 2014


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.

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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 toward 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)

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

Published in the Sun.Star Davao newspaper on November 21, 2014.

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