Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

"Come now, let us reason together"—Civil Discourse and Cognitive Bias

Jason E. Summers


April 22, 2011
by Jason E. Summers

In a recent article in Capital Commentary Richard J. Mouw wrote, "the specific traits associated with civility are...essential to the Christian life." Yet the traits that give rise to incivility are as closely tied to our humanity through our underlying mental apparatus.

Civility requires that we see others as equals in dignity and right to conscience. Michael J. Gerson has previously asserted in this space that for Christians, this flows from our shared status as bearers of the Imago Dei. Nonetheless, despite my own commitment to civility, I often view those I disagree with as biased and irrational, driven more by ideology and prejudices than by careful reflection. In their failures, I offer judgment rather than mercy because I see them reaping consequences for their own shortcomings, rather than overcome by difficult circumstances. But, as a substantial body of research in social psychology suggests, so do most of us.

Since Fritz Heider's foundational work on attribution error, psychologists have recognized that the mechanisms through which we assign causes to actions are fraught with bias. Building on Heider's work, Lee D. Ross coined the phrase “fundamental attribution error” to describe our tendency to attribute the negative behaviors of others to their personality (disposition) while we attribute our own negative behaviors to circumstances (situation). Many political arguments, from domestic concerns over welfare and taxation to international concerns over aid and promotion of democracy, reduce to disagreements over attribution. Jesus' parable of the talents advocates a richer view: we are accountable for our choices and actions (disposition), but in accordance with what we are given (situation).

Similarly, “correspondence bias” assumes behaviors correspond to disposition and leads us to generalize about personality from behavior observed in a single context. Such assessments based on first impressions are fodder for racism and classism, but are remarkably resistant to change—even when we know about mitigating circumstances and have opportunities to observe an individual behaving differently in the same context. However, findings by Betram Gawronski and his colleagues offer some hope.  Their research suggests that our initial impressions can be overcome if we experience an individual in multiple contexts. I am reminded of the Biblical injunction to live in community with our neighbors, a prescription for enriching our view of them.

More recently, Ross's student Emily Pronin found an additional actor-observer asymmetry in which we recognize bias in others while being unaware of our own. For groups with opposing views this “bias blind spot” leads each group to assume that the other group as biased, perhaps driven more by ideology or emotion than reason. When the other's views are dismissed as irrational, the need for dialogue evaporates and the ensuing lack of communication only solidifies views of each group, escalating a spiral of aggression and ill will.

Self-examination alone is insufficient to overcome this bias; rather, the problem is best resolved in community. To overcome bias blind spot we must attend to both our intentions and our behaviors. It is the responsibility of citizens to seek out environments of shared commitment and accountability in which to practice this discipline and the responsibility of churches and organizations such as the Center for Public Justice to cultivate and strengthen such communities.

If I am to “live at peace with all men” (Rom. 12:18) and “seek the peace and prosperity” (Jer. 29:7) of the country in which I find myself, I must participate in and contribute to the social institutions and practices that can assist in mitigating my own cognitive biases. Recognizing the inherent psychological biases that lead us to view others as caricatures, rather than bearers of the Imago Dei, the Christian community must collectively do the same. In this way, current understanding of cognitive bias affirms that if we are to fulfill our mandate as the Church we must “be transformed by the renewing of [our] mind[s].” (Rom. 12:2)

Jason E. Summers is Chief Scientist at Applied Research in Acoustics LLC and is currently engaged in research aimed at mitigating cognitive bias. The views expressed here are those of the author alone.


“To respond to the author of this Commentary please email:
Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”