Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Confirmation Bias & Overconfidence in Pattern Worship

Authoritarian Teaching Model
So, I do a Google search of "Pattern Worship" and this article is at the top of the list: The Divine Pattern of Acceptable Worship.

I am very familiar with the interpretations of the author, since he is certainly not the only preacher from (southern) churches of Christ who fully believes that content.

Since I have written extensive articles over the last four years on the various contents found in his article, I would simply like to point out the seeming disconnect that it takes to even title the article. What makes any one person think that he knows the "divine pattern" of "acceptable" worship?

From my view, it comes from being born into a belief system such as the author was in Tennessee, being brought up in only that authoritarian tradition, and therefore, never really considering anything else. This isolation, reinforced by confirmation bias and from being vested in tradition, seems to originate from being indoctrinated from birth that one has the truth and must never consider that what he has been taught may be wrong or that a differing interpretation may be more valid. Terms like "faithfulness" and "sound" are attached to this indoctrination and so to consider anything differently is viewed as infidelity to God.

The reinforcing nature of the interpretation style goes like this: The isolationism causes one to disconnect from his own interpretations. An innocence in the mind of the believer that he is not interpreting anything. All he is doing is telling us what "God said" and that "God's word" is "truth." So, for him, he genuinely cannot understand why everyone else cannot see what he sees. Yet, his own inability to see information that may invalidate his conclusions remains elusive to him. 

Only when we step back and observe this phenomenon can we get a grasp on it. Only when we consider other viewpoints and get honest about the fact that we are interpreting the Bible with limited information will we see how arrogant this behavior is. Albeit sincere, it is delusional. It is confirmation bias at its height, and in my opinion, produces a blinding overconfidence.


According to the dictionary,

"Overconfidence refers to a biased way of looking at a situation. When you are overconfident, you misjudge your opinion, beliefs or abilities and you have more confidence than you should given the objective parameters of the situation."

"Overconfidence can cause a person to experience problems because s/he may not prepare properly for a situation or may get into a dangerous situation that s/he is not equipped to handle."

In a previous blog post found here, I suggested assembling for edification (worship) to eat the Lord's Supper which includes discussion (preaching) and singing based on the first century context of the Christian banquet or evening meal. Assembling for the Lord's meal would naturally invite additional prayers as well.

These are four of the commonly viewed "five acts of worship pattern" among churches of Christ. The fifth act is "giving" which I have addressed in another blog post found here. (In 1 Cor. 16:1-4, Paul actually commands private "collections" to be accumulated "at home" stewarded by families, not treasuries controlled by elders and preachers or men's business meetings).

As I seek to understand better why the status quo remains difficult to influence, I came across a few insights given by Daniel Kahneman in his book, Thinking, Fast and Slow.

Kahneman's documented behaviors are convincing as to why people reject truth and remain the same.


Kahneman writes:

"To understand how this principle works, imagine that a large number of observers are shown glass jars containing pennies and are challenged to estimate the number of pennies in each jar. As James Surowiecki explained in his best-selling The Wisdom of Crowds, this is the kind of task in which individuals do very poorly, but pools of individual judgments do remarkably well."

"Some individuals greatly overestimate the true number, others underestimate it, but when many judgments are averaged, the average tends to be quite accurate. The mechanism is straightforward: all individuals look at the same jar, and all their judgments have a common basis."

"On the other hand, the errors that individuals make are independent of the errors made by others, and (in the absence of a systematic bias) they tend to average to zero. However... error reduction works well only when the observations are independent and their errors uncorrelated. If the observers share a bias, the aggregation of judgments will not reduce it."

"Allowing the observers to influence each other effectively reduces the size of the sample, and with it the precision of the group estimate. To derive the most useful information from multiple sources of evidence, you should always try to make these sources independent of each other."

"This rule is part of good police procedure. When there are multiple witnesses to an event, they are not allowed to discuss it before giving their testimony. The goal is not only to prevent collusion by hostile witnesses, it is also to prevent unbiased witnesses from influencing each other. Witnesses who exchange their experiences will tend to make similar errors in their testimony, reducing the total value of the information they provide."

"Eliminating redundancy from your sources of information is always a good idea. The principle of independent judgments (and decorrelated errors) has immediate applications for the conduct of meetings...."

"A simple rule can help: before an issue is discussed, all members...should be asked to write a very brief summary of their position. This procedure makes good use of the value of the diversity of knowledge and opinion in the group. The standard practice of open discussion gives too much weight to the opinions of those who speak early and assertively, causing others to line up behind them."--D.K.

Now, if this is the case with group discussions which I believe are a part of Christian assemblies, then how much more should we beware, when every week in our meetings only one man is allowed to interpret the Bible based on his "writing a very brief summary" (sermon outline, study notes) and to speak without other independent judgments? The knowledge that is being allowed for consideration is limited.

I agree with Kahneman that private study, or a "brief summary" of one's position is necessary even before a weekly assembly that includes dialogue, but sometimes preachers--the only ones allowed to speak in the assembly--don't even do this. Sermon outlines are borrowed all the time. Talk about confirmation bias.

Also, when "authority" is viewed as the principle thing rather than wisdom and knowledge as the Bible teaches, the we do not grow--we simply "submit" to the status quo as a group. Fear which is the opposite of faith governs behavior--not truth.

Another insight Kahneman found was the "What You See Is All There Is" phenomenon.


He writes,

"Conclusions on the basis of limited evidence is so important to an understanding of intuitive thinking...that I will use a cumbersome abbreviation for it: WYSIATI, which stands for what you see is all there is. Amos Tversky reported a study that bears directly on WYSIATI, by observing the reaction of people who are given one-sided evidence and know it. Nevertheless, the presentation of one-sided evidence had a very pronounced effect on judgments."

"Furthermore, participants who saw one-sided evidence were more confident of their judgments than those who saw both sides. This is just what you would expect if the confidence that people experience is determined by the coherence of the story they manage to construct from available information."

"It is the consistency of the information that matters for a good story, not its completeness. Indeed, you will often find that knowing little makes it easier to fit everything you know into a coherent pattern."

"WYSIATI facilitates the achievement of coherence and of the cognitive ease that causes us to accept a statement as true. It explains why we can think fast, and how we are able to make sense of partial information in a complex world. Much of the time, the coherent story we put together is close enough to reality to support reasonable action."--D.K.

This is what I believe has been done over the last two centuries by churches of Christ in our noble endeavor to restore New Testament Christianity: a supposed pattern has been projected onto the Biblical text based on limited information and that additional information is not allowed to affect.--S.P.


The biggest difference that I see, and that Kahneman's book describes well, is the overconfidence that comes from pattern theology.

Kahneman continues:

"The confidence that individuals have in their beliefs depends mostly on the quality of the story they can tell about what they see, even if they see little. We often fail to allow for the possibility that evidence that should be critical to our judgment is missing— what we see is all there is.

Furthermore, our associative system tends to settle on a coherent pattern of activation and suppresses doubt and ambiguity. "Kahneman concludes with some quotes illustrating behaviors concerning confirmation bias:

“Let’s decorrelate errors by obtaining separate judgments on the issue before any discussion. We will get more information from independent assessments.”

“They made that big decision on the basis of a good report from one consultant. WYSIATI— what you see is all there is. They did not seem to realize how little information they had.”

“They didn’t want more information that might spoil their story."


The quotes defining overconfidence are from yourdictionary.com.

Kahneman, Daniel (2011-10-25). Thinking, Fast and Slow (p. 86-88). Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition.

All bold emphasis mine, sp.

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