“Confirmation Bias, as the term is typically used in the psychological literature, connotes the seeking or interpreting of evidence in ways that are partial to existing beliefs, expectations, or a hypothesis in hand.” (Nickerson, 1998).
It has been sixteen years since I studied psychology in a formal setting, but I regularly have “ah-ha!” moments and suddenly remember a phrase or concept from school that is relevant to something going on in our family. I love it when this happens; It clears some of the cobwebs from my sleep-deprived mom brain.
Not that long ago, I had one such “Ah-ha!” moment. I was reminded about confirmation bias, and what a powerful force it can be in shaping our familial relationships. Re-read the definition above and consider its implications. Our relationships, typically the ones where we have the most emotional investment, are often governed by quiet conclusions of which we may not even be mindful.
How can such strong conclusions about those closest to us form without our active awareness? And why are they so dangerous?
We don’t set out to form confirmation biases; they accumulate like soap scum on the bathroom shower tile. Interaction after interaction with someone who is hard to love leaves a sort of residue, and over time the residue builds up into conclusions about how a given person really is. Once the residue has formed, it is incredibly hard to remove. The conclusions are strong and run deep under our thoughts: He’s weak. She’s controlling. He’s manipulative. She’s a liar. Maybe these conclusions are true; maybe they are not, but our bias drives us to see what we expect to see in the other person. It suggests we would rather be right and hold on to our conclusions than acknowledge behaviors that do not support our conclusions. Our biases blind us from seeing any behavior that does not “confirm” our beliefs about a particular person.
Consider this idea in light of Scripture. How does confirmation bias align with our worldview as believers?
Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you (Colossians 3:12-13, NIV).
As Christians, the imperative is clear: we are to extend the same grace to each other that the Lord has extended to us. This means we have to acknowledge our biases toward others—especially those who are hardest for us to love. We must be willing to see others as capable of change through God’s work in their lives.
In light of the cross, no one is hopeless. However, I want to push pause here and acknowledge that our biases are often rooted in genuine hurt. I do not want to minimize deep abuses that might have scarred some of us. Please do not hear me saying that we should just “get over it”. That is not my intent. Deep wounds don’t just go away; they must be worked through over time.
My intent is to acknowledge the ways we let biases, rather than the biblical imperative, govern our relationships. Whoever is that person—the one who is hardest for us to love—it is worth asking a few questions. Maybe it’s a rebellious child. An emotionally distant spouse. A manipulative parent. Whoever it is, are we seeing them in light of who God says they are, or are we assuming our bias is always and forever right? As Christians, we don’t want to hold our judgments about others so tightly that we become blind to the possibility of godly change in another’s life.
So how do we identify relationships where confirmation bias is blinding us? It begins with asking the Lord to open our own eyes to the hardness of our own hearts. Through prayer, we can humbly ask God to show us the relationships where we are clinging to our bias rather than clinging to who GOD says that person is. From this starting point, we acknowledge that God can change the hardest of hearts. Beloved Child of God, He changed yours, and He changed mine. Pray that if and when the time comes, we would rejoice when we see godly change in the lives of those hard-to-love folks instead of hunkering down and holding on tightly to our biases. Pray that we would be able extend as much mercy to others as God has extended to us.
Here is a thought experiment: what if we turned the idea of confirmation bias on its head? As the term is typically used, it implies a negative cognitive commitment. What if we could create a bias that tilts towards mercy and compassion in our homes? Try forming a bias that fundamentally sees those around you in light of who God says they really are—image bearers broken by sin yet loved by God. A compassionate “bias” prevents us from defining our loved ones by their sin because our view of them is deeply rooted in Christ’s love for us. Remember the children’s song? We love because He first loved us.
Let’s try a homework assignment: Think of the folks that are hardest to love. This week, let’s prayerfully ask the Lord to tilt our biases toward grace and compassion.
Nickerson, Raymond S. (1998). Review of General Psychology, Vol. 2, No. 2, 175-220.
*What a great challenge to lay down our biases toward others at the feet of Jesus, trusting Him to help us see them through His eyes of grace and compassion! Have you been challenged by Laura’s post today? We’d love to hear from you in the comment section below!