We’ve all heard about confirmation bias, where we tend to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms or support things we believe to be true. But did you know some of that may be physiological? We have a filter in our brain called the Reticular Activating System (RAS). The RAS is a group of neurons in your brain stem that mediate your behavior, as well as arousal, consciousness and motivation. As part of the filter function, the RAS works to determine which of the information you receive you pay attention to.
When you hear something, it is sent to your RAS where it is filtered in a process known as sensory gating. Think of this like a gatekeeper of what your mind processes. But some information, often contradictory information, is not sent to be processed, as your RAS keeps your attention directed toward information you already possess that better aligns with your beliefs, which is easier for you to process and wrap your mind around. The most common way we experience the RAS in action is when we hear our name in a crowded noisy room full of people. Our RAS knows our name is important, so it lets it through the filter while discarding all the other random conversations that are hitting our ear.
I believe that my friend is very often angry. If I believe that to my core, what will happen is my reticular activating system will filter out the times that she’s not angry. Meaning my friend may have a lot of days of smiles and laughter, but my brain may not remember them. So, I convince myself that she’s a very angry person.”
Now this cuts both ways for Mormons.
A faithful member of the church will have a RAS that will keep him from remembering the terrible Mission President he had in Brazil, the first time he when to the Temple and was creeped out by the Washing and Anointing, and that article in the newspaper that said Mormons were not Christians.
On the other side, the angry ex-Mormon who believes the Church is evil, will not remember the kind home teacher that helped repair their family’s broken pipe on a Sunday afternoon, the fun times she had at girls camp, or the kindly bishop who mourned with her at her mother’s death.
So are we doomed to being stuck in our beliefs, or is there a way to hack our RAS to be more open minded? As I looked up the RAS on Google, I found lots of articles and YouTube videos how to open this filter up. Most centered on on self-help, and self actualization. I’ll leave that to the reader to Google RAS and read for yourselfer, but I found a couple that made sense.
The first step in changing this filter is to recognize it is there, and to understand that your core beliefs are only true for you. Recognizing that your reality is based on your perceptions rather than on concrete truths can leave you room to consider more possibilities may exist.
The next is to have an intention. If you think most people are bad drivers, tell yourself you are going to look for the good drivers (even your mother-in-law), and this will open the filter to allow good drivers to be remembered. . Now this could be dangerous for a TBM, who makes it their goal to understand why their brother left the church. If they start investigating with an open mind, knowing their RAS will try to filter out the things they are reading, some of the bad things about the Church will get through their filer. They may remember that Joseph Smith married a 14 year old girl, or that the Book of Abraham is nothing that it proports to be.
How does this help you understand those in and out of the church? Have you seen this filter work, for good or bad, in your own life?
Image by nugroho dwi hartawan from Pixabay
Your piece here is excellent. I definitely know a thing or two about confirmation bias but I know close to nothing about the RAS, at least in name.
I really believe we are all capable of taking our confirmation bias. It takes some effort but it’s doable. I think the missing ingredient for many is desire. I think some folks have no desire to modify their bias, even if they know it exists, because they believe they are “correct” or “right” or “true”. Church upbringing tends to train you to think that way.
The answer to overcoming confirmation bias is not to do as Bill says by looking for the negative in everything. It is not to dwell only on bad experiences. It is to engage in critical thinking about ALL experiences.
Those who attack the Church primarily base their attacks in the people in the Church. They focus only on mistakes and flaws. That is the very definition of confirmation bias—looking only for negative traits that reinforce a pre-existing negative view.
The irrefutable truth is that, just like every other organization composed of human being, the Church has human beings who are not perfect. It is intellectually dishonest to claim to oneself or others that the Church cannot be true because its members are not perfect.
I see the difference of stay or go, based on the Gottman ratio . More positives than negatives you stay. Negatives out balance the positives……the divorce may occur with the church in this example.
The negative interactions include: The Four horsemen (critisism, contempt, defensiveness, stonewalling). Which then can lead to lonelines, isolation and anger.
The positives: show interest, express affection, demonstrate that they matter, appreciation, find opportunities for agreement, empathize, and apoligize.
If out of balance then we should create more positives. Now remember this is a 2 way street, it is not only our responsibility. The church is also responsible and should not act as a passive participant.
However, as in my experience in trying to make it work and create positives….i saw it was a one-sided relationship and finally after many, many years….it was best that i not participate for my own mental well being.
As mentioned the RAS fills in those positives when that it what we are seeking and the negatives likewise. However, you can be seeking positives and experiencing negatives and still reach a breaking point if the environment is too toxic.
Mr Charity: you’ve created a bit of a straw man. I see people (myself included) leaving not because of people in the Church as you suggest. They leave because the historical and truth narratives don’t add up. That’s what is intellectually dishonest.
Great post. And a good reminder for me personally. As someone who’s left the church, I do find myself sometimes wanting to see the worst in it to justify my decision to leave. But it really is unnecessary. When I’m more clear-headed, I can remember that these two things can be simultaneously true: 1) the church is a net good for many people in the world including my loved ones, and 2) my decision to leave was still the right decision for me.
I’d rather see things as they are than see personally validating distortions, but it’s much easier said than done. Part of the reason I’m so drawn to this blog, I think, is that these discussions do help me untangle the version of the church in my head from the one in real life.
I have confirmation bias. When I hear $120+B, I get sick. I think of opportunities wasted. I don’t see any pluses.
Trumpist have confirmation bias. They hear anti-abortion, anti-gun control, deregulation and anti-socialism, and get excited. They forget the long list of negatives. Culminating in Jan 6.
Roger Hansen: there is no doubt that you are correct about Trumpers. The Fox News mentality is exhibit A. But if we are being honest here, we admit that confirmation bias exists on both sides. Go to virtually any college campus for exhibit B.
I loved reading this post and most of the comments. Bishop Bill’s contributions are always
I don’t know if it directly pertains to Bishop Bill’s post about confirmation bias, but the biggest enemy to being a constructive member of society is, in my opinion, the assumption that one is right and the other side is wrong. A rigorous self-examination of one’s own self for flaws is a good thing. The medieval Catholic Saint Catherine of Siena stated that if one is willing to be displeasing to oneself, one will be pleasing in the eyes of God.
This can only go so far, of course. One cannot say, I disapprove of gassing Jews, but it is okay if you feel differently. Or, I disapprove of slavery, but if you wish to enslave others, that’s okay.
But the dogmatic sense that one is right is on the rise in our fractured culture, including the Church, and that is causing damage. I think the greater threat comes from the right, but the left does not reassure me, either. We do better as a culture when we are less judgmental are open to what I call the Other.
I hope against hope someday for a national Movement for the Promotion of Humility.
I am not a Mormon, but I admire the church. It is the one novel church in all American history that innovated and brought in millions of new followers. It survived the violent, criminal death of its founder, and it prospered. What’s not to like?
Josh h. I have wondered why we see the world as we do. Is it still RAS, or confirmation bias, if one side is based on lies, and the other on facts?
Are there facts, (I believe so) or only opinions? Might the uni students, have taken economics, and politics coarses, and be making informed decisions?
I was councillor to a bishop who took a uni course in politics, and economics, and changed from an active conservative to a progressive.
I realise neither is perfect, but streets ahead.
I believe we need to call out lies rather than accept me too ism.
“I simply cannot fathom someone still being fixated on Trump; while our current President (on a hot mic) declares “Well, I just got my butt wiped”. Geez, give it a rest”
That you would repeat something like this without 1. Fact checking, 2. Thinking is this likely 3. Looking for context 4. Questioning the source?
If you saw a report that pres Nelson or Oaks had said the same thing; shurely you would ask the above questions, before you repeated it as fact? Why would you not use that process for anyone whether you like or dislike them? It is so obviously unlikely, and yet if people on here are repeating it, probably most republicans believe it. Great for democracy, and respect for the president.
Mr Geoff: there’s no way I’m going to defend Trump and I’m very reluctant to defend Trump supporters. And I get your point about opinions vs facts. But to suggest that university students lean one way (to the left usually) because they’ve finally been exposed to facts is simply just an opinion. University students are generally among the most indoctrinated sub-groups in the US (my opinion).
As for LDS issues and filters, a few years back Richard Bushman had some good advice. He said (paraphrasing from memory) you don’t have to avoid controversial issues in LDS history, just read widely. Read articles or books from both sides or all sides of the issue, not just LDS critics and not just LDS defenders. That still seems like good advice.
The problem, of course, is that the Church doesn’t endorse that approach. The Church quite strongly advises members to read only material that presents the Church side, and leaders would in fact be happy if members restricted their input not only to LDS-friendly sources but to LDS-approved sources. I think they try to keep the average members busy enough they don’t really have time to read anything. That solves the whole problem.
Downvote him if you will, but Josh h is right on. I’d go him one better & assert that university faculty are even more indoctrinated – almost as if their jobs depended on it (smiley face here). Max wokeness is a mirror image Trumpness. No thanks. There are better ways to bring equity & peace to our little planet.
Attempting to discredit information coming from universities as being partisan is, in fact, partisan.
It attempts to negate any authoritative input as being liberal, thus, nullifying it to their base.
If there is no academic consensus, then any opinion is not wrong. If no one studies something, then anyone came make up anything, without fear of credible contradiction.
How I see that at play one the national stage is in such things as:
– the IRS not collecting data on which people are targeted for having their tax returns audited:
– wholesale discrediting of the 30-year study of Critical Race Theory.
– Republican passing laws to keep the CDC from collecting data on gun violence.
How I see it play out in religion includes:
It is very difficult to study biology, geology, paleontology, astronomy, psychiatry, etc., and maintain a fundamentalist religious belief in a young earth, in tracing human lineage 6,000 years back, in devils inhabiting people or swine, etc.
Many religions, instead of acknowledging that their beliefs originated in a time without access to advanced knowledge, find it more appealing to reject genuine authority.
More examples of conservative and/or religious applications are welcome.
My two oldest sons have each taken a BYUI class that teaches a 4 billion year old earth, single cell to human evolution, and global climate change. Their testimonies are fully intact. There doesn’t need to be a conflict between faith and science.
The last few years have made me realize how much our beliefs are based on what’s useful to us (which then impacts our filter as you describe here). Utility can come in a lot of forms – identity, relationships, economic or social advantage, etc etc etc, – so similarly-situated people might have different beliefs. But still at their core there’s a utility and I think it’s incredibly difficult for us to adopt a belief that is fundamentally against our interests (again, depending on which of those interests most matter, which is often really hard to identify in ourselves let alone other people). I don’t really know how to get around this other than to recognize it – and to realize that other people are never actually irrational. They are totally rational based on what they perceive to be their self-interest and reality. That helps me understand and empathize with other people better. But I am definitely going to check out your resources on opening up my filter.
When it comes to Church, I think it breaks down the utility vs validity Mormons stereotype. I know this isn’t true for everyone and for some those categories really reflect their experience, but in general I think it’s a lot easier to believe that the Church is invalid once it’s utility is in decline. I knew a lot of stuff for a long time that didn’t impact the Church’s validity to me until the net utility of the Church in my life declined. I was a lot more open to changing beliefs once that happened. And for sure I’ve swung too far in the other direction of filtering out the good and it takes a lot of effort to be more open to both sides.
But as for the Church generally … I guess Church better keep meeting people’s needs or it will find itself with an increasing number of non-believers.