How our biases skew our conclusions about the motives of other people
Earlier tonight I read Dagoods' most recent blog entry where he said he thinks Christians avoid learning about their opposition because they are afraid. Now I don't deny that this is the case for a lot of Christians, but the lack of balance in his post got me to thinking about something. We all seem to more readily attribute sinister motives in those who are against us than in those who are for us. Seems only natural, doesn't it?
Dale Carnegie in How to Win Friends and Influence People made the same point. I don't have the book with me, but he argued in one of the first few chapters that people rarely ever blame themselves for anything. They always find some way to justify their actions. C.S. Lewis made the same observation in one of the first few chapters of Mere Christianity. He said we are so aware of the moral law that we can't bare to face the fact that we've broken it. Consequently, we always put our bad behavior down to circumstances out of our control. We let ourselves off the hook somehow. But we put our good behavior down to ourselves.
We are far more likely to blame others than to blame ourselves. We have no shortage of good excuses for our own actions. But when other people behave badly (especially when they behave badly toward us), we are not so generous. We don't extend the benefit of the doubt as readily to others as we extend the justification to ourselves.
One of the examples Dagoods brought up was that Christians often misrepresent their opposition. This was an example of what he called "lack of honest inquiry." So basically he's accusing Christians of intellectual dishonesty when they misrepresent their opposition and then make strawman arguments. Isn't it interesting that his one explanation for these misrepresentations is "lack of honest inquiry"? He doesn't even raise the possibility that some Christians could honestly have misunderstandings about their opposition. To here Dagoods tell it, you'd think this was a problem unique to Christians. Christians are deceitful scum to dishonestly misrepresent non-believers, but of course non-believers never do that.
Let's pretend that we are observing a debate between a theist and an atheist on the existence of God. Both debaters have published a number of books and articles, and we have read them all. We have studied them thoroughly, and we are equally informed on both of their views. Now let's say that while we're observing this debate we notice that both of them misrepresent the other's position. What is our gut reaction to this?
That seems to depend on whose side we're on, doesn't it? We assume our guy made an honest mistake and maybe just doesn't really understand the other guy. But we assume the other guy is intentionally misrepresenting our guy. He's being intellectually dishonest. This is one case of how our bias can influence our conclusions about the motives of others.
We can't do away with our biases, but by being aware of them, we can make a more conscious effort to be fair. We shouldn't attribute motives to people without proper justification. We should be just as harsh with ourselves when we've done wrong as we are with others when they've done wrong. And if we're going to justify our own bad behavior, then we ought to be open to possible justifications for other people's bad behavior. Easier said than done, but if truth matters, then it's worth the effort, because truth requires consistency.