Of all the questions being asked regarding Russian involvement in the 2016 presidential election, the most important question is being overlooked. Instead of directing questions to Trump or the Russians, voters in America need to be looking in the mirror and asking – Was I personally snookered by the Russians or by someone who wanted me to vote a certain way? And if so – What is it about me that is susceptible to being snookered?
Consider: the Russians, to my knowledge, are not being accused of stuffing ballot boxes or electronically screwing with our voting devices (not that they didn’t want to). Instead, if I understand correctly, they are being accused of flooding social media like Face Book with untruths and misstatements that would raise concerns and lead to a Trump victory. They didn’t mess with hardware or actual votes; they messed with our minds. Shouldn’t we be asking how it is that our minds are so easily messed with?
Easily messed with minds were around before the 2016 election. Jesus himself talked about screwed up thinking when He explained how it is possible to believe your thinking is filled with light, when in fact the light you think you have is actually darkness (Matt. 6:23). Dark thinking such as this, Jesus further points out, can even lead people to kill others and then claim they are doing it in the name of God (John 16:2). The apostle Paul wrote about people being capable of having an enthusiasm for God, but this enthusiasm being based on “misdirected zeal” (Rom. 10:2).
Easily messed with, screwed up, misdirected. Whatever you want to call it, the question remains – How do we achieve such confusion? And is it possible to break free of the psychological/spiritual fog and climb into clearer air?
Your Lying Mind, a recent article in The Atlantic (Sept. 2018), considers the phenomena of bias and the ways in which it influences, and even seems to commandeer, our choices. Ben Yagoda, the article’s author, refers to several biases, some of them significant, some less so. Examples include – Hyperbolic Discounting Bias: choosing to take $150 today rather than wait for $180 in a month (although when offered $150 in a year or $180 in 13 months, people consistently choose the $180); Actor-Observer Bias – the tendency for explanations of other individual’s behaviors to overemphasize the influence of their personality and underemphasize the influence of their situation, while explaining our own behavior in just the opposite); or the Zeignarik Effect – uncompleted tasks are remembered better than completed ones. And let’s not forget the IKEA Effect – where people place a disproportionate value on objects they assemble themselves.
Soon, though, Yagoda gets to a key point of the article when he writes, “If I had to single out a particular bias as the most pervasive and damaging, it would probably be confirmation bias. That’s the effect that leads us to look for evidence confirming what we already think or suspect, to view facts and ideas we encounter as further confirmation, and to discount or ignore any piece of evidence that seems to support an alternate view.” As I share this passage with you, my country – the United States – is anything but united and instead is wracked by political and social division; and my church – Seventh-day Adventist – isn’t doing a whole lot better. In both cases, I see confirmation bias as playing a key role in the problem.
Choice Theory offers that if we have a high need for power we may find fulfillment in dominating others; or that if we have a high need for purpose we may find it need-satisfying to embrace a rigid set of beliefs, even if these beliefs are racist and hateful. Of course, people can also have their need for power met through relating to and effectively cooperating with others, and the need for purpose can be met by clarifying one’s own beliefs without forcing them onto others. There is nothing that says we have to be one way or another. We do, though, place ourselves in a position of growth, that is being open to learning and change, or in a position of inertia, that is being firm in your course and unopen to change.
This post has me really thinking about the purpose of bias, and whether or not it has an important function. I can think of a lot of damaging biases, but I am hard-pressed to think of helpful biases. Can you think of a helpful bias?
I think fear is a big part of bias. A 2013 post – Why Are So Many Christians So Un-Christian? – referred to the phenomena of rationalization or what is known as motivated reasoning, where we choose what to believe and then go about finding information to support it. “We push threatening information away,” the author explains, “and we pull friendly information close. Our faculties are usually put to the task of trying to defend what we already believe, not towards developing a better understanding of the world.” A TED talk to which I referred in this same 2013 post described the difference between a warrior mindset and a scout mindset. The warrior is driven toward one goal, to survive through defending or attacking, while the scout is driven to understand and to gain a complete and accurate picture of the facts. Defending and attacking, again, are fear words.
I don’t like it when people, whether or not they are from another country, try to mess with us through social media, and I think steps should be taken to keep that from happening, but I’d like it even better if we as individuals became less . . . well . . . easily messed with. Fear, worry, and anxiety contribute to this kind of vulnerability. The poet Hafiz (14thcentury) once said that “Fear is the cheapest room in the house; I’d like to see you in better living conditions.” His view echoed that of the Apostle Paul, who centuries earlier had penned, “For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of love, power, and a sound mind.” (2 Tim. 1:7) Our power of choice gives us the ability to discern, to weigh the evidence, and to not simply look for information that supports our beliefs.
Fear is the cheapest room in the house;
I’d like to see you in better living conditions.
The Atlantic article asks whether or not it is possible for an individual to change or eliminate a bias. Experts were quoted that came down on both sides of the argument. From my perspective, Choice Theory lands firmly on the side that biases can indeed be changed. Hope for our planet now hinges on this belief.