Hancock, The Train, and Confirmation Bias

There’s a scene in the movie, Hancock that got me thinking about a declaration I’ve heard in many churches in which I’ve been involved.

Here’s a guy with all of the resources in the world to do whatever needs to be done, and he saves this one guy in less than stellar fashion. The crowd is up in arms. The damage that’s done to automobiles, the crushed train engine, the derailment of dozens of railroad cars, power lines, and what turns out to be the last remnant of Hancock’s reputation are overwhelming and devastating.

The crowd surrounds Hancock and yells that he could have simply picked the car up off of the train tracks and moved it out of the way. Not one of us would disagree with the crowd. He had plenty of time do this another way. Hancock, living with the sort of denial that psychologists refer to as “confirmation bias” argues with the crowd and levels personal, verbal attacks as a way of justifying what he did as acceptable. Though he didn’t say it exactly this way, his attitude is, “What’s your problem?  I saved his life, didn’t I? Even though I only saved one, wasn’t it worth it?”

I used to be a member of mid-sized church that every year produced a major Christmas program as an outreach event. Here is the short list of statistics from the event several years ago:

  • $ 16,000 – and this was because they only had to upgrade software and equipment that they had purchased over the years as they built up this event.
  • 200,000 man-hours. Months of choir rehearsals, drama rehearsal, orchestra rehearsal, light and sound technicians, set and stage design and construction, publicity and promotion, break down, and clean up. Add in the hours that soloists and actors spent on their own, learning their parts, and 200,000 man hours is a very conservative number.
  • 4 performances, involving approximately 175 participants, with an average attendance somewhere in the 800 range.
  • 5 response cards turned in.
  • 1 person reported accepting Christ (but this person also reported a re-commitment to Christ).

And then someone says it. “If we reach only one, it was worth it.”

REALLY? Couldn’t we have found some way, with all of those resources, to pick up that one person that needed saving without derailing thousands of dollars and hundreds of thousands of man-hours? Let me be clear: everyone is worth saving. However, I’m fairly confident that if it takes $16,000 and 200,000 man-hours to reach each person, the cause of Jesus Christ is lost.

This was not the first year, nor was it the last, that this church produced such a program. The program was driven by those that love music and drama. Calling it an outreach event gave it the spiritual justification it needed. The reality is that outreach did not happen. But having 3000 people attend the event made it easy to believe that outreach was happening, even though it wasn’t.

Raymond Nickerson, of Tufts University, defines Confirmation Bias:

Confirmation bias, as the term is typically used in the psychological literature, connotes the seeking or interpreting of evidence in ways that are partial to existing beliefs, expectations, or a hypothesis in hand. (“Confirmation Bias: A Ubiquitous Phenomenon in Many Guises”, copyright 1998 by the Educational Publishing Foundation, http://psy2.ucsd.edu/~mckenzie/nickersonConfirmationBias.pdf)

In other words, Confirmation Bias is the intentional or unintentional practice of ignoring or discounting any information that does not agree with what we already believe. This bias includes the desire to seek out and rationalize any information that will support what we do believe. (This is often the cause of proof-texting with scripture: taking passages out of context to “prove” a point or position.) Don’t confuse me with the facts… my mind is made up.

Something that often happens on this journey away from effectiveness is the subtle redefinition of effort. Somewhere along the way, this outreach event became a “gift to the community.” There was no change in effort, no change in expense – only the purpose changed. And it changed to match what was already happening. It changed from being “so that” people would be reached for Christ, into a gift for the community “because” that is what it had become. (See Domino Strategy for more on “so that” and “because”). The encouragement to invite friends and family worked. However, the fact is, the longer one is a Christian, the more “Christian” is their circle of family and friends. We filled the house with believers.

In other situations the word remains the same, but the meaning changes. “Outreach” too often is satisfied by events that draw other Christians to your church. Let me ask you to consider your pantry and your refrigerator. As the master of your home, if you were to take cheese, lettuce, and chicken out of your refrigerator and place them in your pantry, would you then look in your pantry and think (with the appropriate amount of Confirmation Bias), “Wow, I’ve got more food in my house now.”

Do we think that the Master is somehow fooled into thinking that He has more people in His house because someone has moved from The First Refrigerator to Protestant Pantry? It’s not possible to reach out to those that are already reached. Confirmation Bias allows us to believe it is.

Now, here is the solution for Confirmation Bias.  Stop it. Just stop it. Stop deceiving yourself because of your bias for your own preferences, programs, personalities, and polity. If your church has a purpose statement, ask yourself and others:

  • Are we really doing this? No, really, really doing this? (In other words, is this really our purpose, or is it simply a statement in a frame, hung on a wall?)
  • How are we doing at this point in time?
  • What specific plans do we have to accomplish this purpose?
  • Will those plans really get us there?
  • What is my specific role?
  • Am I willing to do what is necessary?
  • What gifts has God placed in our body to help us accomplish His purpose?
  • How will we move our membership into alignment in this purpose?

And, equally important:

  • What are we doing that is working against this purpose? (For example, time, people, and resources are not unlimited.) In other words, what do we need to say “No” to, so that we have the time, people, and resources to say “Yes” to God’s purpose?
  • What barriers do we need to overcome?
  • What processes need to change?
  • What polity needs to change?
  • What programs need to change?

If your church does not have a purpose (statement), set about arriving at what God’s purpose for your church is, and then set a strategic plan in place to accomplish that which God as set for you to do. And please, let the facts confuse you. And let the wisdom of God bring clarity to your mind.

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2 Responses to Hancock, The Train, and Confirmation Bias

  1. Drew says:

    Wow! I’m pretty sure I worked at that church… Pointed out the same thing and heard that I just didn’t realize what a great reputation needed to be upheld.

    Great perspective Eli! Love it!

    • Eli Bernard says:

      Thanks, Drew! I’m afraid that the scope of this reality is just as prevalent in our churches as it is in our politics.

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