Cognitive Bias and Congregational Life

I want to take as my text today the Bible verse Matthew 7:3.

“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?”

There is much of poetry and wisdom in the Bible, and this verse is a good example of it.  Of course, it is no literal plank I wish to bring to your attention; today I want to talk about cognitive bias, that continuous human ability to be unaware of blind spots, erroneous thinking and logical inconsistencies in oneself while swiftly perceiving them in others.

A cognitive bias is a human tendency to draw the wrong conclusion from a set of circumstances based on faulty thinking rather than the factual evidence.  The list of cognitive biases is very long, and because cognitive bias is a hot topic in contemporary psychology, it is getting longer every year.  Those of you who picked up the handout will see how long it is, although there is some overlap and some biases are missing.

There are three things you need to know about cognitive biases.  You have them; so does everybody else; and you can change your life for the better if you work toward understanding cognitive biases in yourself and others.

Biases come in all shapes and sizes.  They don’t have to be ugly, like ageism, racism and homophobia.  They can be pretty much harmless, especially when you know they are there.

When I first came to Unitarianism, I went to a church in Montreal where Enter, Rejoice and Come In was the ingathering music every single Sunday.  To this day I wish that Beacon did the same.  Why?  Well, take a look at Bias # 51… The “Mere Exposure Effect”.  That is the tendency to express undue liking for things merely because of familiarity with them.

Now that I’ve been coming to Beacon for the best part of a decade, I remember my resentment when we had to stop lighting candles for Joys and Concerns when we moved to the Gathering Place.  After a year, I was pretty much okay with putting pebbles into a vase to express Joys and Concerns.  Why?  Because I was familiar with the ritual; because I participated, and people I love participated.  Even if you, in truth, have no control over anything external to you, the familiar gives you that illusion of control; it is one of the reasons why our hearts buck so hard against change, even good change.

This leads in to some other biases;  #85 — System Justification, #80 Status quo bias, #50, Loss Aversion, and #26, Endowment effect.  These are all biases that make clubs, businesses, churches, families and many other human groups buck very hard against change.  How do these all link together?

System Justification is the tendency to defend and bolster the status quo.  To be a true bias, the tendency to defend and bolster the status quo needs to be set in context; it is only when the bias is expressed in the teeth of the evidence that it’s a bias.  Otherwise it’s just self-knowledge, or a preference.  May I also point out that your ability to see yourself as biased varies from day to day and situation to situation.  You may be open minded about organizational changes at work and very close minded about what your Thanksgiving dinner should look like — to the point of picking a fight with your mother-in-law about giblet gravy.  That’s no preference — it’s a bias.

When the System Justification bias is in play then whatever arrangements you have in the group that currently exist are supported and preferred and funded, and whatever alternatives are suggested are bad-mouthed, under-resourced and shunted aside.  This bias is what allows groups to do things that are clearly and plainly NOT in the group interest.  This bias gets along well with the Status Quo bias — the tendency to like things to stay the same, as well as the Endowment effect — which points to people wanting to be paid more for something they own than what they’d pay for it if they had to replace it (which I also call the Garage Sale dilemma).  Then there’s Loss Aversion, which makes the pain of the loss of something more nasty than the pain of acquiring it.  End result, nobody wants to change anything at church.  Actually there isn’t a person in this room who doesn’t want to change SOMEthing about church — we just know that there will be a heckuva challenge in store to make change happen.  My end of the elephant doesn’t look like yours, don’t you know.

So I started off today, why worry about the speck in your brother’s eye when you have a plank in your own?  Well, it’s human to do that.  It may not be wise or good, or just, but it is human.

Most of our cognitive biases seem to have one of two psychological purposes.

Biases like the Herd Instinct are all about the human craving to belong.  We don’t stick our necks out and we follow the example of others so that we can be part of a group, and feel safer.  If you’re selling heroin on the streets of Vancouver, as a foot soldier in some kind of drug gang, the sacrifices you make to belong will not avail you once you’re arrested or shot in a turf war, but the main reason that young men and women make those sacrifices and take those risks is to belong, to share values and to participate — especially when nobody else has bothered to include them.

At the same time as we have biases that encourage us to belong, we have biases that allow us to differentiate ourselves from others — by allowing us to emphasize in our own minds our uniqueness, intelligence, memory, good fortune, etc. etc.  These are much more pernicious, in my view because it is much harder to identify and attack them.

Let’s look at one of those planks — I mean biases.

How about #1 — Actor — observer bias.  This is a sneaky one.  It’s definitely a plank in the eye.  Suppose you hear that Allegra has been in a car accident (I haven’t, fortunately).   Now further suppose you have an opinion about me being a rather frivolous and inattentive person.  This might bias you to believe that my personality had more to do with my imaginary accident than the situation I found myself in at the time of the accident.

Now put the shoe on the other foot.  You are describing the exact same accident, an accident YOU had, to a friend.  Your personality would have nothing to do with your description of the accident.  You would say, “It was dark, the road was wet, and I had just swerved to avoid a raccoon when somebody made an illegal lane change in front of me.”  And your friend would say, “How awful!”  But she might secretly be thinking that you were too tender hearted and you should have just hit the raccoon…. See what I mean?  The person who is watching gives more credence to personality and motive than to the facts of the case.  When the situation is reversed, personality hardly affects the description at all.

How do you fight a bias like that?  Well, it’s hard.  You can tell yourself, “I pledge to myself that I will judge situations on facts that I can verify, and I won’t give my feelings and preferences the same weight as facts.”  Best of luck with that.  It’s a struggle.  But it’s an important struggle.  Hardly anything you do with your mind can affect your life more than to make the decision that you are going to get to know all the dark corners and unexamined assumptions of your life…. So you don’t fool yourself as much, and so you don’t make unwarranted assumptions about the thoughts, feelings and actions of others.  Or maybe you do still make unwarranted assumptions, but you can at least catch yourself doing it and adjust your behaviour accordingly, like a cook correcting the seasoning in a dish after tasting it.

I call attention to Cognitive Bias like a skeptic at a magic show.  When you’re eight years old, you might think the magician really makes the elephant disappear and pulls the rabbit out of that hat.  If that eight year old is sitting next to a hardened skeptic, the skeptic will say, there’s a trick to it.  Then the eight year old, understanding the mechanics of the trap door under the hat, will turn to the six year old and say, “You big baby, there’s a hidey hole in the table!” when the six year old says, “Wow!” with awestruck wonderment.

The eight year old has left self-deception behind.  She can no longer say to herself that what the magician is doing defies the laws of nature.  Shedding bias is a sign of growth, maturity, self-esteem and wisdom.  But there will always be folks in the audience who prefer wishful thinking to facts.

Fight self-deception in yourself.  Fight the urge to belittle others for lack of knowledge and understanding by holding compassion in your heart.  If someone is genuinely ignorant of their own incompetence, then it is the incompetence that should be addressed, and not your own hurt feelings that somebody should have ‘known better’.   How often do we hold others to a higher standard then we hold ourselves?… nitpicking on a speck and ignoring our own big and smelly compost heap, if I may borrow one of Sue Sparlin’s favorite sources of inspiration.

I linked cognitive bias to congregational life.  Each of us is at a different stage of a journey towards competence in spiritual growth and fellowship; to be aware of cognitive bias in yourself and others makes it easier to adapt; to find practical and humane methods of resolving conflict; to not take things personally; to be able to apologize meaningfully when we have given offence; to nurture ourselves as we battle internalized bias and fear of the ‘other’.

At its best, a U*U congregation is a place where you work on your theology along with the rest of your life, sometimes as more of an activist, sometimes as more of a hermit, or more a traveler, or more family-centred, depending on your age and stage, and depending on how your life has arced and sputtered and sometimes even kept a steady flame.  But in order to approach the idea of the holy or the powerful or the eternal, we must keep our wits about us; if we are going to think about it, we’re better prepared if we know where the pitfalls are.  Different religions emphasize different things.  But there is also a lot of attention given to the same things, over and over, in different forms, in different religions.  Meaningful and honest speech; cleanliness; discipline in the face of trials, charitable behaviour and kindness to and awareness of those in need; diligent support of the faith and trustworthy behaviour in performing tasks.

All of these behaviours are worth promoting.  I can certainly see supporting any number of behaviours, as long as you show me the science or the positive outcomes that recommend why I should, for example, support needle exchanges for IV drug users. My bias leads me to say, when asked to support something, that I don’t want the rule (or Bible, or Koran, or Book of Mormon), I want to be shown the reason, the logic, the power of the argument.  I can be convinced, but not coerced.  I want to hear from the experts because I’ve only ever got hold of one leg of the elephant.  Nobody knows everything, but together, we know quite a bit.

To be told what to do infuriates me.  To be convinced with real life examples, as well as book learning, that something I once believed to be true is no longer true, well, that new conviction will free my mind.  It’s why I’m U*U.  I come to this faith with biases and shoddy thinking, in the belief that I will be forced to confront my biases — that I will be asked to consider my role in the dance of all life — that I will be moved to be more compassionate and more forgiving, not just to others but to myself.

To have a mind full of bias is like running on empty with a broken gas gauge.  You see the gauge, and you just don’t want to believe that illusory fumes may be all you have.  It is not wishful thinking that will build the new Jerusalem.  It is clear thinking, relentless self-examination, and lots of very hard work, supplemented by the ability to see yourself and other people as and how they are with understanding and love unclouded by sentimentality and expectation.

I am asking you to make it your business to examine your biases — and to help make Beacon a great place, a safe place, to do that in.  When we learn about cognitive bias, and learn what we may do to fight cognitive bias, that problem of human cognition that makes our flaws invisible and the very same flaws in others insufferable, we are in truth working on our theology.  We will find in ourselves better solutions, by thinking better quality thoughts.  Blessed be.

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