CONFIRMATION BIAS - PARSHAT VAEIRA
Updated: Jun 29, 2021
The only thing harder than changing someone else’s opinion, is changing your own opinion.
Pharaoh’s behavior throughout the period of the plagues is perplexing. Despite the miraculous nature of the plagues and the devastation they wrought upon Egypt, Pharaoh refused to acknowledge God or to let Bnei Yisrael leave Egypt. One explanation which would obviate the need to understand Pharaoh’s behavior on a psychological level would be to posit that God took control of his decisions and made him inhumanely stubborn. Yet, even if we were to resolve the philosophical challenges of God removing a human’s free will, we would be left with the textual challenge that for the first five plagues, the Torah states explicitly that Pharaoh hardened his own heart. It is only after the sixth plague that the Torah indicates that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart. How can we understand such an extreme and self-destructive rigidity on a psychological level?
In an experiment conducted at Stanford, researchers recruited participants based on their attitudes towards capital punishment. Half the students recruited were in favor and half against. The students were given two studies to read: one which provided data in support of capital punishment’s ability to deter crime and another that provided data against its efficacy to deter crime. Those that were already in favor of capital punishment rated the data in support of their view highly compelling and the data that challenged their view as unconvincing. The reverse was true for those against capital punishment. They rated the data in support of their claim convincing and the data against their claim uncompelling.
In truth, the data was fabricated in order to provide what were objectively similar claims in both studies. Despite there being no logical reason to support their own side over the other side, each side believed the evidence that proved their point and disregarded the evidence against. This phenomenon, known as the confirmation bias, helps us understand why it is so hard to change our own, or other people’s opinions. Once we believe a certain way, our minds search for evidence to prove that belief and disregard evidence that calls it into question.
Pharaoh’s refusal to believe in the miraculous power of God is evident even before the plagues begin. When Aharon’s staff swallowed up the necromancers’ staffs (Shemot 7:12), that did not impress Pharaoh. In order to conform to his own way of viewing the world, he hardened his heart, assuming it was just stronger magic (see Ibn Ezra). The same was true for the first two plagues. He assumed that Moshe and Aharon were just beating his own necromancers at their own game. The stronger challenge to his worldview came when the necromancers proclaimed that the third plague was beyond their abilities – “it is the finger of God.” Yet, despite the evidence, Pharaoh still hardened his heart. In fact, Ramban points out that this is the last we see of these necromancers. He dismisses and silences the opinions that don’t conform to his own. Even by the fifth plague, which clearly only impacted the Egyptian animals and not the animals of Bnei Yisrael, Pharaoh still refused to look at the counterevidence and hardened his own heart (see Seforno).
From this perspective, Pharaoh’s irrational and self-destructive behavior is just an extreme version of a common human condition, present within us all. If we find ourselves constantly confirming our own opinions and easily rejecting the evidence against, it may be time to take a step back and try to evaluate things on a deeper level. Perhaps our opinions are still correct, but to account for the confirmation bias, it may be wise to analyze and weigh the evidence in a balanced manner.