Know Thy Bias! A Guide for the Delusional

Behold! A sneak peek into the Mental Health Issue that’s probably arrived at your (cooler […]

Mockingbird / 10.6.16

Behold! A sneak peek into the Mental Health Issue that’s probably arrived at your (cooler friend’s) house this week. If it hasn’t, well, there’s still time…but they are selling out! 


In the midst of an election year, and in the middle of a mental health issue, we’d be remiss not to visit the wide world of cognitive biases. When it comes to finding a bridge linking Christian theology and cognitive psychology, there’s really no better place to look than in the descriptions of many our self-contained blind spots. Much of this list is brought to us by David McRaney’s You Are Not So Smart, which compiles nearly 50 of these mental health blunders.

Confirmation Bias  The tendency to experience the world through the lens of your already held beliefs. If you think, before you’ve ever eaten there, that La Frontera is a terrible restaurant (from talking to trusted friends and reading Yelp reviews), the odds are in favor of you hating it when you get there. You are now only there to confirm what you already know: that La Frontera is a refried bean wasteland. If we can do this with Tex-Mex, just think of what we can do with the Bible! (Or our children!)

Hindsight Bias  The tendency to redact your past so you can feel the comfort of being right. After your team goes down in spectacular fashion after carrying a sizeable lead through most of the game, you may find yourself saying: “I just knew they were going to blow it. Typical.” When limited to basketball games, this is less damaging than, say, when working for a worldwide news conglomerate.

End-of-History Illusion  The tendency to view your present identity as the fully enlightened, final product. Despite the fact that you can’t believe you voted for that candidate, bought that music, and dated that boy ten years ago, you are positive that today’s political viewpoints, music taste, and love interest are the ones that will really last. You’re wrong. In ten years, you’ll roll your eyes again. Sigh. (This is just as true on a societal level, when every age has its own particular apocalyptic visions.)


Performance Bias (or Publication Bias)  The propensity to reshape your life events into a narrative arc with clean resolutions. Remember that time you didn’t get the job? Remember how much it hurt and how, looking back, it was just a beautiful lesson from On High? This is your inner-Lifestyle Blogger at work – your innate ability to carve out the meaningless dross of life to make it the stuff of movies.

Imposter Syndrome  The state of mind marked by the feeling that you’re a fraud, that you’ve snuck into the club of experts and it’s only a matter of time before you’re eventually found out. Surprisingly, we are prone to this feeling of inadequacy and illegitimacy even in areas where we are most legitimate. You notice this syndrome when you catch yourself turning awfully quiet, restraining yourself from saying anything that might out you as a quack. You know you’ve got quite a bit of ego stored in this “club” when it has debilitated you this way.

Overjustification Effect  The propensity to equate the value of doing something with the praise/payment we receive for doing it. Say you’ve always loved painting. When your mother told you in high school that your paintings were so good they could sell for thousands, suddenly you felt a new reason to paint that hadn’t been there before. Suddenly, you don’t just do what you love, you have potential to be great! The overjustification effect demonstrates that the enjoyments of freedom are easily spoiled by the demands of the law. As soon as any measure enters the equation, whether praise or punishment, what once was done “for the fun of it” is now something which must justified.

chast147phSpotlight Effect  The tendency to believe that everyone is paying attention to you, when they aren’t. Instead, everyone is anticipating their fateful moment in the spotlight—they’re not watching you. Walker Percy notes a similar phenomenon that occurs when a man sees a photograph of himself: “Everyone else in the picture looks more or less as he knew they would–they are what they are…and when he finds himself, he always experiences a slight pang.”

Attribution Bias  The (false) inference of attributes based on limited circumstantial evidence. You go back to your hometown for the weekend and see your extended family. Your niece, who you don’t see very often, throws a torrential fit when it’s time to get ready for dinner; rather than assuming that she may simply be in a bad mood, you say to yourself, this girl is a terror! She must do whatever she pleases at home. Attribution is the key method of Phariseeism in the Bible.

Consistency Bias  Related to the End-of-History Illusion, the assumption that the way you feel now is the way you’ve always felt. Whereas the End-of-History Illusion relates to our future changelessness, the consistency bias relates to the past. William James believed that there are “as many different social selves as there are distinct groups of persons about whose opinion [a man] cares.” The consistency bias makes us believe that these different social selves have always remained the same. They haven’t. Just as your social world is perpetually shifting, so too are you.

Normalcy Bias  The tendency, in a moment of crisis, to act as though everything is normal. After a terrible car accident, you calmly unstrap yourself from the vehicle, unbuckle your daughter and check that she is okay, then you call the authorities. It is only later that night that you are undone by the fact that you both could have died! Why? The normalcy bias is our way of sticking our heads in the sand, of self-soothing even in the most traumatic moments. It is also a wishful longing for the bad thing not to be real.

In conclusion, perhaps the root of every bias is from what we’d call the illusion of control, the false sense that we have a known quantity of agency over our surroundings. The truth, to the contrary, is that we always exaggerate that quantity. As McRaney writes, “Your brain is always looking for patterns…but like faces in clouds, you often see patterns where none exist.” This optimism lies at the heart of so much of our misfortune; and at the heart of so much religious superstition. We’d be much better off, research shows, if we released our feigned sense of control. And yet, as much peace of mind is promised in doing so, it is just one more thing we still can’t seem to control. We’re working on it, though!