This past Sunday, it was a joy to have some of the high schoolers, recently returned from the annual work tour to Cosby, TN, lead us in worship through prayer and reflection. They told stories of those they met, of the time they spent getting to know each other better, of the high heat that raised their hackles and lowered their productivity. They’re a charming group, and I was grateful for their willingness to share their thoughts with us.
A few weeks ago, I offered my own reflections on why work tours are good things for churches to do, suggesting that while our teams inevitably do good work in the communities they go to serve, the greater impact may well (and even should) be not on those served but on those doing the serving. Heading out into a poor community can be an eye-opening experience for a suburban teenager; I know it certainly changed my life.
Just going, though, does not necessarily bring about the change in perspective. Human beings in general are prone to what’s known as “confirmation bias,” which is when we “want to be right about how you see the world, so [we] seek out information which confirms [our] beliefs and avoid contradictory evidence and opinions.” Or, more passively, we interpret new information in ways that confirm what we already believe.
It’s a pretty pervasive stumbling block. This article* chronicles some of the ways it shows up – in the purchasing habits of Amazon customers to viewers of cable news. Often it’s accidental, or at least unconscious. We often don’t intend to interpret things inaccurately, after all… Despite its ubiquity in history, I do wonder sometimes if the degree to which we, culturally, indulge in confirmation bias is growing. Part of that might be because of how we get our news these days – from partisan sources – but I wonder if it isn’t also at least in part an effect of our need to be right all.the.time, and to build our case in all sorts of interactions. We could blame our early language arts teachers (just kidding, I never blame teachers), who taught us how to write a persuasive paper, with a thesis sentence, and support for it.
Many of us, I suspect, once we were done finding our three pieces of supporting information, stopped looking.
The first time I discovered the limits to that approach was my junior year of high school, writing my term paper for AP US History. It was the night before the thing was due, and I was sitting at the big desktop computer in the family office, with my notecards in my lap, the graded outline next to the keyboard. As I sifted through them, ready to write, I realized something. My thesis was entirely wrong. The dates were off: something I’d suggested was caused by another event had actually happened seven years prior to it. Whoops. Knowing that this was a huge part of my grade, and pressed for time, I used the “support” I’d found and wrote it up as planned. Wrong, but done. Would my teacher notice?
She didn’t. I got an A. I was a good student; maybe her own confirmation bias was at play. Or, more likely, it was an obscure topic, and I deliberately wrote in a way that downplayed my mistake.
You can win a debate, you can ace a term paper, using only a portion of available evidence, but you’re still wrong. Whether the omission of other, contradictory, evidence is intentional or not, your conclusion may well not be accurate.
I found this interesting, as I read up on confirmation bias the other day: arrogance can strengthen our biases. The wise, on the other hand, are more likely to “entertain the possibility that they might be wrong.” Scientists, whom we may think of as gathering evidence for hypotheses are, when they’re doing their jobs well, rather seeking to “move closer to the truth by seeking evidence to the contrary.”
This is hard to do in life – and in church – where we often want things to fit into orderly metaphysical systems, where we want to be right, and to claim our rightness with authority. It may feel sometimes that there is too much at stake in any given situation to be found wrong, or to admit to a need to change one’s mind.
But, of course, that’s how we grow. How we learn, how we seek out what’s good and right and true.
That’s what was so moving about the students who spoke in worship on Sunday. They told of anticipating certain truths about what it might be like to be living in poverty in rural Tennessee, about whether a homeowner could afford to care for her many pets, about how much cognitive dissonance a person can live with. And their minds were changed. They allowed themselves to be surprised and to see things in a new light.
Instead of confirming their opinions or preconceived notions, they saw the full, idiosyncratic personhood of those they were sent to work for, and they began to ask new questions about what some live in such poverty and others have so much. They could, emboldened by the grace of God, freely admit that maybe they hadn’t seen the whole picture. That’s the work of the Holy Spirit, if you ask me: considering, in the words of Carl Sagan, “You might be mistaken. You’ve been wrong before.”
There’s humility and grace and hope in that type of reflection. There’s hope that, pervasive as confirmation bias can be, Work Tour can help those in our congregational care to gain eyes to see the complex, wonderful work of God in the world.
*there’s one tiny use of profanity, if that’s something that bothers you.
Reverend Bromleigh McCleneghan
Associate Pastor for Ministry with Families
The Union Church of Hinsdale, U.C.C.