Just How Biased Are You?, or Let’s Play a Game


I was going through a discussion forum today, and came across this list of cognitive biases. According to that list, there are 170 types of biases spread across three categories. Granted, this number is semi-inflated. Some items are

Source: counterthink.tv

Source: counterthink.tv

represented more than once, and not all of them could be called biases. But I went through the first 25 items, under the “Decision-making, belief, and behavioral biases” category, from the ambiguity effect to essentialism. I did this to see how many of biases I have had in the past or still have.

This exercise then prompted me to consider how these biases affect my stances on things religious and philosophical. When I go through the arguments for and against the existence of god, consider a religious experience, or evaluate other religions than my own, are there certain barriers in my mind that preclude a fair case? Here are some examples from my turn in the game:

  • Ambiguity effect– yes; now, since I am not absolutely sure god exists, or what is in the bible is god’s revelation to humanity, or that Jesus is the ultimate revelation of god, but I am sure I exist, I am absolutely more prone to use myself as the measuring stick to order my life than an external matrix I am unsure about
  • Attentional bias– yes; I have been a victim of something, and I can’t really attribute it to one thing. For example, in politics, or at least the kind I’m used to, only two positions are offered for public discourse, yes/or no on an issue. It’s a limiter on other possibilities, and then I find myself suffering from this bias in some areas of life and in others not. E.g., I know there are more theistic possibilities than mere “God exists: yes or no”; religion/philosophy runs along a continuum from strong atheism on one hand to strong theism on the other. In between are all kinds of options, like agnosticism, deism, pantheism, polytheism, monotheism, panentheism, etc. But then when it comes to contemporary political issues, I sometimes find myself narrowly focused: “Guns: yes or no” and no nuance.
  • Backfire effect– oh yah. My first read of Bertrand Russell’s Why I Am Not a Christian
    Source: Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

    Source: Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

    had the opposite effect than persuasion on me 🙂 Even some of his good arguments only reinforced what I saw as true.
  • Bias blind spot– haha, yes; when I first encountered rationalism in philosophy, I really ran with it. I took up the assumption I could remove all biases when looking at an argument, having pure objectivity. Too bad I didn’t understand the concepts of conditioning, context, place, and just the fact that no one is immune to bias.
  • Confirmation bias– I don’t think I know anyone who doesn’t do this. I’m sure they exist somewhere. Using myself as an example (this may be egocentrism, but I’m trying to be concrete), when I’d look over my life to note my tendencies, I would note particular episodes (like telling my mom when I was 10 that the bible was just stories invented by men) as indicative of my whole life. This obviously isn’t the case, since I also had episodes in life (which I’d conveniently forget when doing this exercise) where I was quite confident in the veracity of the Christian Scriptures.
  • Contrast effect– yes; as pertains to body image, I remember when I was in great shape. Then I would see another guy who was bigger and more ripped than me and would feel not in shape. But just because another guy was 8% body fat and had 10 more pounds of lean muscle did not mean my 10% body fat self was a chub.
  • Empathy gap– Yup. When I was studying to go into ministry, I assumed everyone should be doing what I was doing: reading about theology, biblical studies, church history, because that’s what Christians do, right? I didn’t understand different personality types, different time capacities. I thought my future church parishioners should go through the curriculum I went through, and with the same rigor, not realizing family, work, and other commitments they would have that I didn’t have at the time I was a single college student barely working 10 hours a week.
  • Essentialism– Oh yes. This one’s big and I think a lot of people play this game. For example, I saw the Christianity I grew up with as the true, authentic version. As I came to reject it, I believed I was rejecting Christianity. But as one of my friends pointed out (and something I should have remembered- dern you biases!), there are many branches on the Christian trunk. A mere perusal through the table of contents of Livingston’s Modern Christian Thought, here and here, shows a choir of voices singing sometimes strident harmonies, but the same song (though many in the same choir question others’ true membership). Essentialism tries to get at what is essential for one to be X, say human. A featherless biped which has the capacities of reason, relationship, and self-consciousness. What of the quadriplegic? What of those in a coma? Are these any less human than “normal folk?” or do essentials always fail, since the aberrations are still considered of the same kind, but we lack in language what we need to nail down what constitutes essence?

So out of these possible biases I played with, I’ve had or still have 9, have been unaffected by 8, and am unsure about 8, either because they were presented horrendously in Wikipedia, or I just won’t get them unless I plan on spending more time on them than I feel like doing. All in all, it was neat to see how fallible I am, and how I feel comfortable with that fact now. How do you fare in the bias game?

3 thoughts on “Just How Biased Are You?, or Let’s Play a Game

  1. Pingback: Talking about God in Medicine | A Friend to Yourself

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