Why can’t you see it? It’s so obvious. You’re just being obstinate and refusing to see what’s right in front of your face.
I was leading a theology class the other day, and I could almost see some of these thoughts leaking from the ears of two of my students. We were dealing with one of the many contentious issues in theology, and they were visibly frustrated that the other student just wasn’t understanding what was so obvious to them. Why couldn’t they get it?
Clearly there’s something wrong with the way they think.
That’s probably true. Because apparently there’s something wrong with the way that we all think. In a recent survey, 52% of Oregon adults said that they think crime is on the rise. The problem is that it’s just not true. According to a recent article in the Oregonian,
From 2008 to 2009, violent crime fell 2.1 percent, putting the state’s rate at 38th nationally. Oregon’s property crime rate ranked 23rd in the nation in 2009, and that year the rate was the lowest since 1966 (emphasis added).
And, people expressed this skewed understanding of crime rates despite the fact that their own experience was significantly different. Only 25% of people said that they thought the crime rate in their neighborhood had gone up.
So, although their personal experience was that crime had decreased and the actual data indicates that crime had decreased, just over half of people still though that crime had increased overall.
When both experience and data suggest one thing, why do we persist in believing something else?
A recent article in the British Medical Journal suggests that the problem comes from cognitive bias, the ways in which we are cognitively predisposed to form certain judgments. For example, “There is considerable evidence that people presented with balanced arguments place weight on those they already agree with, exhibiting what is termed confirmation bias.” In one interesting study,
subjects were initially categorised on a conservative-liberal scale and then exposed to factually incorrect stories on the effect of US tax cuts and weapons of mass destruction in Iraq followed by an authoritative correction. If they sympathised with the initial message the correction either failed to change their misperception or actually reinforced it.
Another study noted that subjects were far more likely to recognize contradictory statements when they were made by someone they disagreed with politically than when made by someone with whom they were sympathetic.
So, we’re predisposed to believing that certain things are true, often despite significant evidence to the contrary.
The implications of this for theology and theological argumentation should be obvious. When you encounter a contrary theological perspective, is it really as obviously false as you think it is? Or, is that your cognitive bias playing tricks on you? Take a closer look. It might be like one of those optical illusions where the woman turns into a musician or the black square turns out to be a picture of three monkeys playing soccer with overripe watermelon. How can you tell if you’re seeing things correctly? You probably can’t. That’s why you need someone to look at the picture with you. They might see it differently. And, then you can talk about it. (And, while you’re at it, you can mock the other person for being so stupid and not being able to see the picture the way you do. That’s part of the fun.)
None of us think all that well. That’s why we keep doing stupid stuff. I’m not sure that thinking in groups is likely to make us all that much smarter, but at least we’ll have people to point out that there are a whole variety of ways to think badly about something. That has to be some kind of improvement. Doesn’t it?
(Thanks to Boing Boing for pointing out these two articles and the interesting overlap between them.)