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Cognitive biases and the way we interpret the bible.

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Cognitive biases and the way we interpret the Bible.

Written by: Dr Aaron Chalmers

I recently attended a lecture that focussed on cognitive biases and assessment. Essentially, a cognitive bias is a “systematic error in judgement and decision making common to all human beings which can be due to cognitive limitations, motivational factors, and/or adaptations to natural environments” (Wilke and Mata, 2012: 531). As we were discussing the potential influence of these biases on the way we grade student’s work, I was struck by the ways in which they might also influence the way we interpret the Bible.

Let me give you one example.

Confirmation bias is defined as “the tendency to selectively search for or interpret information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions or hypotheses” (Wilke and Mata, 2012: 532).  As the quote indicates, people usually display this bias in one of two ways:

  1. They engage in a biased search for information – when people gather information, they tend to do so selectively, searching for evidence that is consistent with their current hypothesis.
  2. They engaged in biased interpretation of the evidence – people tend to interpret information in a way that supports their pre-existing position or beliefs. This is particularly noticeable when we look at the way people handle ambiguous information, which is characteristically taken to be supportive of the individual’s existing position, even though it could be used to argue for or against this.

A good example of confirmation bias is the debate over gun control that unfortunately and sadly seems to come up every few months in the United States. Someone who is in favour of stricter gun controls will tend to seek out news stories that reaffirm the need for limitations on gun ownership, and interpret any facts / data they are given in a way that supports their beliefs that the rules around gun ownership need to be toughened. Someone who is adamantly opposed to gun control, on the other hand, will seek out news sources that are more closely aligned with their position, and will interpret the facts / data in a different way.

Researchers have suggested that the effect of confirmation bias is stronger for emotionally charged issues and for deeply entrenched beliefs. Therefore, we would expect it to be a significant factor when it comes to biblical interpretation, which is often dealing with issues which are emotionally significant (such as loss, grief, life after death, etc.) and has to do with deeply-held beliefs. I can see at least two ways in which confirmation bias might influence biblical interpreters:

  1. When reading the Scriptures, we will tend to focus on those passages which support our pre-existing beliefs while downplaying those that may run counter to these. Just think, for example, of the way that Armenians and Calvinists tend to emphasise different biblical texts while ignoring others.
  2. We will tend to interpret passages in ways that support our pre-existing theological beliefs and understandings. In other words, we will tend to interpret a passage in the light of what we already think it means (i.e., our interpretation will conform with our pre-existing understanding of the passage’s meaning).

Can you think of any other examples?


Wilke, A. and Mata, R. (2012) “Cognitive Bias,” in V.S. Ramachandran (ed.) The Encyclopedia of Human Behavior, vol 1, pp. 531-535. Academic Press.

Dr Aaron Chalmers, Dean of Ministry Practice