Skip to content

Cognitive Biases

I am by no means a psychologist.  But I did spend a number of years studying statistics.  People who don’t understand statistics think it is simply data analysis and presentation.  There is far more to it, but one specific aspect always interested me: the study of bias.  To be a statistician, you have to understand and be able to spot bias.  You have to predict where and how bias occurs.  And you have to know ways to counter and reduce bias.  There are many, many different kinds of cognitive bias.  I’ll stick just to the ones I think are most represented in church members, again relying heavily on Wikipedia since I want to keep this relatively brief.

Anchoring – the common human tendency to rely too heavily, or “anchor,” on one trait or piece of information when making decisions.

I see this one in a few different aspects.  First, apologists often defend the Book of Mormon or another aspect of church history by clinging to one or two things that may support it, even if they are mostly unimportant.  LDS archeologists have been fruitlessly searching for some kind of proof that the Book of Mormon is a true history.  They are searching for any kind of evidence to support their faulty conclusion.  Some apologists and many faithful members claim that Izapa Stela 5 shows the Tree of Life and is therefore proof that the Book of Mormon is true.  That’s anchoring bias at its finest: taking a single piece of “evidence”, ignoring what scholars believe is the real history behind it, and claiming that it proves your theory despite the mountains of other archeological evidence disproving the theory.

Another example of anchoring bias is the spiritual witness theory.  This is held by many faithful LDS who are aware of the historical and contradictory aspects of the church.  They claim that none of the damning evidence is important because they have a spiritual witness of the truth.  But they fail to realize that truth never contradicts itself.  They also fail to give any credence to the idea that their spiritual witness may be due to a psychological phenomenon, cognitive bias, or even a spiritual witness that it’s the thing they need now even if it’s not true.  They are anchoring.

Bias blind spot – the tendency to see oneself as less biased than other people.

Isn’t that the essential justification church members make when they claim their spiritual witness of the veracity of the LDS church is right while millions of other people’s spiritual witnesses of their religions are false?

Choice-supportive bias – the tendency to remember one’s choices as better than they actually were.

Confirmation bias – the tendency to search for or interpret information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions.

This one is huge in the church.  Take President Monson’s story about his lost $5 bill in the last General Conference.  He left the bill in his pants, sent the pants to the cleaners, prayed for its safe return, received the pants back with the bill inside, and knew his prayer was answered.  How did he actually know his prayer was answered?  Or did he want so badly to believe his prayer was answered that it made the notion sure in his mind?  I’m not suggesting that his prayer wasn’t answered, I’m just suggesting that his test for whether or not it was answered was inherently flawed.  If the bill had not been in the pants, would it have been evidence against prayer?  Or would he have subconsciously ignored that data in favor of newly presented data the next time he felt his prayer was answered?

Nowhere in the church is confirmation bias more present than in Moroni’s promise.  “…and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost.”  It’s a rather manipulative thing.  You have to have a sincere heart and real intent.  It’s implying that you have to want to believe not only that you will get an answer, but that the answer will be a confirmation of the truth of the Book of Mormon.  How many people have knelt and put that promise to the test without realizing that they were poisoning the “test” with confirmation bias, a thoroughly researched psychological phenomenon?  I’ll quote from the Wikipedia article on confirmation bias:

“Experiments have repeatedly found that people tend to test hypotheses in a one-sided way, by searching for evidence consistent with the hypothesis they hold at a given time. Rather than searching through all the relevant evidence, they ask questions that are phrased so that an affirmative answer supports their hypothesis. They look for the consequences that they would expect if their hypothesis were true, rather than what would happen if it were false.”

Empathy gap – the tendency to underestimate the influence or strength of feelings, in either oneself or others.

In my opinion, that’s a big reason why members are able to override facts, evidence, and history that contradicts their emotional feelings about the truth or falsehood of the church.

Experimenter’s or Expectation bias – the tendency for experimenters to believe, certify, and publish data that agree with their expectations for the outcome of an experiment, and to disbelieve, discard, or downgrade the corresponding weightings for data that appear to conflict with those expectations.

Exactly how LDS apologists operate.  Take a look at some of the more prominent apologists dealing with the Book of Abraham.

Irrational escalation – the phenomenon where people justify increased investment in a decision, based on the cumulative prior investment, despite new evidence suggesting that the decision was probably wrong.

Mere exposure effect – the tendency to express undue liking for things merely because of familiarity with them.

Selective perception – the tendency for expectations to affect perception.

I certainly noticed this one in myself when I was studying troubling church history events.  I expected the church to have a nearly spotless history.  I expected church leaders to be honest and open about it.  And it was an extremely powerful effect.  Looking at the same information now, I am amazed at how much selective perception affected me.

Semmelweis reflex – the tendency to reject new evidence that contradicts a paradigm.

Status quo bias – the tendency to like things to stay relatively the same

Wishful thinking – the formation of beliefs and the making of decisions according to what is pleasing to imagine instead of by appeal to evidence or rationality.

This was another one that deeply affected me.  I desperately wanted to believe the church was true.  My entire family, most of my friends, my marriage, and really most of my life was invested in it.

Availability cascade – a self-reinforcing process in which a collective belief gains more and more plausibility through its increasing repetition in public discourse (or “repeat something long enough and it will become true”).

Do I even need to comment on that one?

Illusory correlation – inaccurately perceiving a relationship between two events, either because of prejudice or selective processing of information.

This one can work both ways, but I think it helps make it difficult to accept for long-time members that the temple ceremony was largely copied from the Masons.

Observer-expectancy effect – when a researcher expects a given result and therefore unconsciously manipulates an experiment or misinterprets data in order to find it.

Again, this ties a bit into confirmation bias and Moroni’s promise.

Overconfidence effect – excessive confidence in one’s own answers to questions. For example, for certain types of questions, answers that people rate as “99% certain” turn out to be wrong 40% of the time.

Subjective validation – perception that something is true if a subject’s belief demands it to be true. Also assigns perceived connections between coincidences.

Moral luck – the tendency for people to ascribe greater or lesser moral standing based on the outcome of an event rather than the intention

The outcome of Prop 8 that church members focused on was the church not being forced to perform gay marriages, adoptions being to two different gender parents, etc. but the intention was essentially to punish two people “living in sin”.  It was deemed morally just to not allow two adults who love each other to get married, even though the sin was supposedly the sexual act rather than simply being married.  The sexual act would happen regardless of the ability to marry of course, so no “sin” was prevented.

System justification – the tendency to defend and bolster the status quo. Existing social, economic, and political arrangements tend to be preferred, and alternatives disparaged sometimes even at the expense of individual and collective self-interest.

Fundamental attribution error – the tendency for people to over-emphasize personality-based explanations for behaviors observed in others while under-emphasizing the role and power of situational influences on the same behavior.

When people make judgments about my character based on my research and decisions in regard to the church, I think it is partially because of this.  In their minds, there must be a justification based on my laziness, desire to sin, etc. instead of me learning things and following my convictions.

Next step: How Do We Know A Spiritual Witness Isn’t From Satan?

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s