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How biblical figures were tricked by their own brains


Antoine Mekary | ALETEIA

Aliénor Strentz - published on 06/16/21

All of us are susceptible to cognitive biases, as these examples from the Bible reveal.

Albert Moukheiber, clinical psychologist and doctor in cognitive neuroscience, is an expert on human thoughts, judgments, and decision making. He explains how, in our daily lives, our brains “play tricks” on us when they process and filter signals from the outside world.

Like a friend who wishes us well, the brain carries out a “reduction of ambiguity”—in other words, it chooses among the different options that reality contains. It thus constructs a global vision of the world, as stable and coherent as possible.

Errors of judgment 

In most cases, this interpretation of reality is useful for our survival. It allows us to make reflexive judgments that facilitate our daily lives (for example, if we see large black clouds in the sky, we automatically think that it’s likely to rain, rather than seeing them as a possible sign of the end of the world and dwelling unnecessarily on this probability!).

But this re-creation of reality also leads us to make errors of judgment that can be harmful to ourselves and others. These deviations in thinking were identified under the term “cognitive biases” by psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky in the early 1970s. They’re an integral part of our reasoning and therefore it’s useless to try to eradicate them. 

It can be useful, however, to first identify them , and understand how they work so that we’re not so easily deceived by our brain. It’s interesting to see that these cognitive biasesalso affected people in the Bible.

Four typical situations of biased thinking

Hundreds of cognitive biases have been identified. Let’s look at four typical situations in which we’re prone to deception and error because of cognitive biases.

1The Apostle Peter and the Overconfidence Bias

If you’re starting to learn something (a foreign language, a sport, etc.), you’re probably subject to the illusion of knowledge bias or overconfidence bias. All learning begins with a surge of confidence in our knowledge of the subject, giving us a feeling of power. 

This bias can also be activated at the beginning of a ministry: Think of the apostle Peter who followed Christ for three years. He overestimated his own strength and his fidelity when Christ warned him of his upcoming Passion, saying, “Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you.” (Mt 26:35)

After his threefold denial, Peter went through a phase of discouragement before getting back on his feet. In the end, the Holy Spirit made him a very courageous apostle! But he had to go through the crucible of self-doubt and humility first.

2Abraham and the Interpretive Bias

When you’re afraid of an unknown situation and you imagine the worst, you’re subject to cognitive interpretation biases, including dramatization or negative interpretation bias, labeling of a person or group, or divination (when you convince yourself that you know what others are thinking without considering more plausible alternatives).

This is what happened to Abram (before he became “Abraham”). A famine forced him to go to Egypt with his wife Sarai. This was an unknown situation for him. He feared the reaction of the Egyptians to Sarai’s great beauty, and imagined that he might be killed if he revealed that she was his wife. So he asked her to pretend to be his sister.

Sarai’s great beauty and her supposed single status were reported to Pharaoh, who took her as his wife (Gen 12:15-19). Learning the truth soon after, he angrily sent Abram and Sarai out of Egypt.

Faced with an unknown situation, Abram preferred to imagine the worst rather than consider other alternatives. His fear triggered interpretive biases that had unfortunate consequences for his decision making. 

3The Prophet Eli and the Anchoring Bias

When you rush to judgment, you’re subject to the following biases: anchoring bias (which consists of focusing on only one piece of information to judge a given situation) or representativeness bias (which makes us judge a person based on a few pieces of information that we consider representative of that person). 

The prophet Eli himself made an error of judgment based on one thing: the sight of Hannah moving her lips without her voice being heard. He quickly deduced that she was drunk and literally asked her to put away her wine. (1 Sam 1:12-14).

The grieving Hannah explained the real situation to him: She’d come to pray in the Temple and pour out her heart to the Lord. Eli immediately regretted his mistake, and without even knowing what she’d come to ask the Lord, blessed her and assured her that God would grant her request.

4Pontius Pilate and the Bias of Social Conformity

When you make a decision in a stressful context, you may be subject to social conformity, an attitude of adopting the same behavior or opinion as that of a group that influences you. 

This is what happened to Pontius Pilate when he had to judge Christ in front of a crowd of people who were united to free Barabbas. Pontius Pilate had been touched by the person of Christ and his message of “the truth” only a short time before. But the pressure of the group was so great that he chose to align himself with the crowd and order the scourging and then the execution of Jesus.

Perhaps it is precisely because Pilate is a “victim” of this double cognitive bias of social conformity and cognitive dissonance (a state of extreme tension due to a discrepancy between our thoughts and our actions) that Christ says to him, alluding to Herod: “He who hands me over to you commits a greater sin” (Jn 19:11).

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