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Faith Works Because It’s Just Glorified Confirmation Bias

Faith Works Because It’s Just Glorified Confirmation Bias July 24, 2015

Confirmation Bias:  Confidence in what we hope for and assurance of what we do not see.

Faith: Confidence in what we hope for and assurance of what we do not see. (According to Hebrews 11:1)

How Confirmation Bias Works in Sports

So, sometimes I play pickup basketball, and at times one player who is usually “meh” hits three three-pointers in a row. Others start saying that he’s “in the zone” and calls go out to “feed him the ball.”

It’s a lie, though. Turns out there’s no such thing as being “in the zone.”

And we’ve known this for a long time.  Since the 1980’s when a study was done on the shooting patterns of the 76ers.  In fact, after making three three-pointers in a row, it seemed as if players were more likely to miss rather than make shots, because the belief they were on a hot streak made them more careless.  This was rather difficult to believe, as Wired explains:

The 76ers were shocked by the evidence. Andrew Toney, the shooting guard, was particularly hard to convince: he was sure that he was a streaky shooter, and went through distinct “hot” and “cold” periods….But the statistics told a different story. During the regular season, Toney made 46 percent of all of his shots. After hitting three shots in a row – a sure sign that he was now “in the zone” – Toney’s field goal percentage dropped to 34 percent. When Toney thought he was “hot,” he was actually freezing cold. And when he thought he was cold, he was just getting warmed up: after missing three shots in a row, Toney made 52 percent of his shots, which was significantly higher than his normal average.

But maybe the 76ers were a statistical outlier. After all, according to a survey conducted by the scientists, 91 percent of serious NBA fans believed in “the hot hand”. They just knew that players were streaky. So Tversky and Gilovich decided to analyze another basketball team: the Boston Celtics. This time, they looked at free throw attempts, and not just field goals. Once again, they found absolutely no evidence of hot hands. Larry Bird was just like Andrew Tooney: After making several free throws in a row, his free throw percentage actually declined. Bird got complacent, and started missing shots he should have made.

So there is no evidence of being “in the zone” — and yet, coaches who get paid millions to coach the sport and are very intelligent still believe in the myth.  And the myth persists even when fewer shots are made after the supposed “streak.” This obviously has nothing to do with a lack of intelligence.  So why do they (and we) believe this?

And it’s not just basketball.  It also has to do with fourth downs.  Statistically speaking, it is better to convert a fourth down than to punt or try to make a field goal, as Scientific American reports:

Consider a study done a few years ago by an economist David Romer. Romer analyzed every fourth down that occurred in the first quarter of every NFL game from 1998 to 2000. After considering several variables Romer developed a mathematical model that gave the probability of successful converting fourth downs and kicking a field goal depending on position and circumstance. Then, he compared his model with what actually happened. He concluded that, “the behavior of National Football League teams on fourth downs departs systematically from the behavior that would maximize their chances of winning.” In other words, it is usually better to go for it on fourth down, and coaches do a really good job of not doing this.

Why, then, do we believe in basketball players being “in the zone”?  Why do even the most intelligent football coaches seem to insist on not converting fourth downs except in extreme situations?

Confirmation bias.  Basically, the way it works is that we pattern-seeking individuals try to find a pattern.  And once we find that pattern, we’ll have an intuition that there is a pattern that applies to our interpretation of every event.

We also have intuitions that are based on the impact of events.  So, we are probably more likely to notice the times we don’t have successful fourth down conversions than the times we do, due to the impact of the consequences — and that creates, in our minds, a pattern of not making fourth downs that results in fewer attempts at fourth down conversions.

I’m starting out with these examples because I want to make it clear that discussion on confirmation bias is not a commentary on someone’s lack of intelligence, and it’s not a flaw in a “stupid” person’s thinking.  We all do it.  We all have to fight it if we want to actually be right as opposed to merely feel right.

Why Faith = Confirmation Bias

But the concept of faith seems tailor-made to take away any defense against confirmation bias.  This seems clearest when looking at what is, arguably, the most popular Christian definition of faith in Hebrews 11:1 (NIV):

Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.

Although this verse has a wide variety of interpretations, depending on Christian denomination and stripe, the general gist is that faith is being confident in something in the absence of evidence that is true — and although many Christians will rebut that faith depends on some evidence, the fact seems to be that, even where you have evidence that it is true, faith is the use of belief to bridge any gaps in the evidence that might make conclusions that you hope for within Christendom questionable.

The important thing to notice is that the glorification of faith encourages individuals to interpret events in the context of what they hope will happen in the future, as opposed to what an unbiased examination of the facts would indicate will happen.  So, while everyone has this tendency of confirmation bias, in Christian conceptualizations of faith this thinking is actively encouraged, not incidental.

Have you ever talked to a person who has been a Christian for a long time and is confident that nothing can shake their faith — and also somewhat proud of the fact?  Such an individual, arguably, has had a lot of practice ignoring indications that his faith may be misplaced and highlighting indications that it is well-placed.  He’s “good at” perpetuating his own confirmation bias.

This dynamic explains why someone can see a parking space as proof of God’s existence and ignore rampant Ebola epidemics.  Everyone engages in confirmation bias, but Christians are strongly encouraged to embrace it, creating extreme cases of the phenomenon.

This realization is helpful for me, as I have, several times, been thoroughly confused by how others who seem otherwise intelligent (and, once, I myself) could possibly believe that a god-man born of virgin died on a cross for the sins of the entire world and was stone-cold dead for three days before rising from the dead.  It seems so fantastic to me now — but looking at faith as a function of confirmation bias has helped me make sense of the phenomenon.

The reason it is so hard to convince people that things like the resurrection are unlikely is that Christians are encouraged to find evidence that confirms what they hope to be true, and reject evidence that does not — for Christians who have the most faith and are often the most revered, opposing evidence simply does not register.  So that, over time, it seems to them that there is an overwhelming amount of evidence in favor of the resurrection of Christ, and little against it — to them, the evidence against it, due to the strong institutionalized encouragement of confirmation bias, hardly exists, because it doesn’t confirm what they are hoping for or assure them of a desired sense of reality.

In response, I’ve tried to be more careful about my own confirmation bias.  I try to keep an eye on what works and what is clearly effective, as opposed to merely confirming what I want to believe.  I try to engage people who believe in different things than I do in discourse to challenge my thinking.  I make a mental effort to be fair.  And I also try to focus more on being right and accurate than on winning arguments.

I still have blind spots. But the awareness that my Christian background is proof that confirmation bias can prompt me to believe very strange things is a strong incentive to try to find them and correct them.  I try now to actively reject faith/confirmation bias tendencies, to embrace doubt and investigate beliefs that contradict what I think in order to be less wrong.  I’m sure I have blind spots, but I’m working on it.

Thanks for reading.

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