One of the books I read (and recommend) this month is Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior by Rom and Ori Brafman. In it, the authors explore many of the common ways that humans and cultures derail rational thinking, along with ways of combating these behaviors. It was a very fascinating read (at least for nerds like me), and has made me rethink the way I approach a number of situations.
One of the topics examined that I found most relevant to the discussions here, applicable to most Christians, ADM’s & non-ADM’s included, is Diagnosis Bias. They observed this in multiple settings, from interviews to first dates to classroom instruction to NBA players. [In the latter arena, they cited the research which shows that in the first five years of a player's NBA career, a player's draft order has far more impact on his playing time than the actual productivity, statistics and per-minute contributions of that player on the court.]
Each day we’re bombarded with so much information that if we had no way to filter it, we’d be unable to function. Psychologist Franz Epting, an expert in understanding how people construct meaning in their experiences, explained, “We use diagnostic labels to organize and simplify. But any classification that you come up with, ” cautioned Epting, “has got to work by ignoring a lot of other things – with the hope that the things you are ignoring don’t make a difference. And that’s where the rub is. Once you get a label in mind, you don’t notice the things that don’t fit within the categories that do make a difference.”
So, basically, humans tend to quickly label things so that they don’t have to continue to observe and evaluate. Data that doesn’t fit the diagnostic label is discarded (or twisted to fit the diagnosis) and data that does fit is overemphasized. Without intentionally, systematically and diligently working against this, though, you are in trouble if your initial diagnostic is off.
What does this sound like?
The Commitment Swamp
One of the other traps noted by the Brafmans is that of Commitment Bias – where once someone commits to a position, person, idea, etc., the cost of letting go becomes great enough that irrational behavior ensues in trying to stick to that commitment, beyond rational bounds. This is sometimes called “throwing good money after bad…”
One demonstration of this behavior is called “Max Bazerman’s twenty-dollar auction” – where a professor auctions off a $20 bill to his classrom, where all bids must be in $1 increments. The winner receives the $20, but both he/she and the second-highest bidder must pay out their bids for the auction. In this experiment, typicallyt all but the top two bidders drop out quickly. It is then not uncommon to see this bidding war go over $100…
Nobel Prize-winning economist Daniel Kahneman, who, together with Amos Tversky, first discovered and chronicled the phenomenon of loss aversion, offers a telling reflection of our psychology during such situations. “To withdraw now is to accept a sure loss,” he writes about digging oneself deeper into a political hole, “and that option is deeply unattractive.” When you combine this with the force of commitment, “the option of hanging on will be relatively attractive, even if the chances of success are small and the cost of delaying failure is high.”
We see this all of the time in blog discussions – where someone espouses a particular loosely-held belief. This belief is criticized and, oft times, the original person then defends it beyond their “loosely-held” passion – making it more strongly-held than it originally was. Eventually, they may have so invested in an argument that they cannot bear to lose face by backing down to their earlier “loose” position or non-position on the topic. I’ve seen it happen recently in some of the “universalism” discussions (one one side of the spectrum), while seeing it most all the time at the other end of the spectrum (such as when clear evidence is brought to bear discrediting one of PB/Ken/Ingrid/other ADM’s arguments, and the individual just digs in much harder – refusing to admit wrong – or hurries to change the subject/divert the discussion elsewhere).
Recently, we’ve noted these (and other) ’swaying’ phenomena, along with instances where an ADM target and an ADM non-target can make the exact same statement, and one (the target) is lambasted, while the non-target is agreed with. However, while we’ve tended to use such things as examples of the lack of the “D” (discernment) in ADM’s, what it really comes down to is poor diagnostics (the “d”iscernment part) with lots and lots and lots of blinders then entrenched with commitment bias and the fear of losing face.
Combating the Sway
Probably the most effective and notable way of combating these biases is to recognize them and call them what they are.
With Diagnostic Bias, when I read journal articles (religious or professional) that I suspect or know I have a bias for/against, I try to imagine that the person who wrote it either agrees with me and is a friend of mine (if I’m diagnostically biased against it) or that they are an opponent trying to persuade me (if I’m biased for it). This has saved me on a number of occasions.
With Commitment Bias, particularly with blog discussions, I often take “time-outs” to discuss the topic IRL with someone I trust, to see if I’ve ‘dug in’ where I shouldn’t have. Many times in threads I have had to issue apologies or partial-retractions because I’ve found myself defending something loosely-held far too strongly. This isn’t because of any virtue I possess, though, but rather God using those around me to bring me back from an edge I’ve gone too close to, or crossed. [You can also figure that if I've backed off and apologized, even if I don't mention it, I've received feedback (at least from my wife) that I'm over-committed on something.]
At a macro-level, this one is interesting. For the first year of this blog’s operation, we/I fought rather hard in defending the right of emerging churches to exist and for the helpful voice they bring to the table. As a result, we also had to consistently fight to try to demonstrate that we, ourselves, don’t consider ourselves “emergent/emerging”, and to fight that diagnostic label. This past year has been some of the same, but some of the opposite, as well – where we’ve had to defend fundamentals of Christian teaching against liberal/lenient pressure, and then fought the “fundamentalist” diagnostic label.
Like so many things, I see the middle ground as somewhere important to hold. Defying labels, and avoiding the diagnostic flaws inherent with labels. Committing to positions, but not over-committing beyond the bounds of reason and Christian charity…