Cognitive bias in biblical interpretation

In the last 2016 issue of the Bulletin for Biblical Research, Aaron Chalmers has an interesting essay on “the influence of cognitive biases on biblical interpretation” (467–80). Chalmers approaches the question from the perspective of cognitive psychology and focuses on “five key cognitive biases”—namely, “confirmation bias, false consensus effect, in-group bias, functional fixedness, and the illusory truth effect” (467).

For Chalmers, bias is almost exclusively a roadblock to proper biblical interpretation that needs to be overcome. Consequently, the latter part of the essay provides five suggestions for “debiasing” oneself. These are understanding cognitive bias, considering opposite views, pausing for adequate reflection, engaging with other interpreters, and avoiding time pressure for completing interpretive tasks (477–80).

In at least one case that I noted, Chalmers explicitly recognizes the possibility of a positive element within the “functional fixedness” type of bias. If biases are not always detrimental but in some ways enabling for our engagement with the world (including, in some respects, its ability to push back on those biases), it might be interesting to consider whether there might be also positive applications for the other four bias types, how to identify these, and how to understand their relations to more negative applications. That being said, Chalmers’s essay certainly provides a concise, helpful rubric for the kind of awareness biblical interpreters should cultivate to avoid simply being “driven along from behind” to where it might not actually be that helpful to go.

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