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Confidence Bias (a 2nd cousin of confirmation bias)

Confidence bias, according to *Brian McLaren, is “our brain’s tendency to believe people who display confidence, rendering us susceptible to those who come on strong even when they’re wrong, including authoritarians and con artists.” I read this description earlier in the week and couldn’t get it off my mind.

When I read it, I immediately identified with my own susceptibility to believing people who sound really confident. Truth be told, I sometimes feel envious of people who sound so sure of themselves, so certain of what they know and believe. It seems like the older I get, the more uncertain I am about what I actually know and absolutely believe.

I also wondered if confidence bias is a way to explain another perplexing phenomenon. I admittedly am baffled by the hundreds of thousands of people, many who identify as Christians, who believe that the 2020 election was stolen. How is that possible when painstaking, bi-partisan efforts have been taken to prove the outcome was accurate? Perhaps because the biggest proponent of this propaganda is someone who speaks with enormous confidence, even when he is brandishing an unequivocal lie.

Now to be fair, I think there are numerous politicians from both parties, not to mention too many pastors and civic leaders, who speak with unflinching confidence, even as they spin reality to fit their own agendas. It seems like this practice of fabrication has become universally and perfectly acceptable among leaders today.

This disturbing realization of my own susceptibility and our current climate of deception came to a head yesterday as I filled out my absentee ballot for the mid-term elections. How do I know if I’m being hoodwinked because of my propensity toward confidence bias? What do I look for in candidates, beyond confidence, that helps me know they are truly able to serve our state and country well?

Here’s what I came up with. It’s a short list, to be sure.

Are they realistic?

Does what they say accurately represent reality—the way things really are for all people; the wealthy and the impoverished, white and non-white, citizen and immigrant, liberal and conservative? Do they claim to have the panacea for all the problems we face, or do they speak honestly about the complexity of our world and its woes?

Are they humble?

While they may appear confident, are they humble? It’s one thing to believe in what you say, to have convictions. But leaders who are zealous without being humble will make self-serving, egotistical decisions—a tendency to reach beyond their grasp. Humility shows up as seeing those on “the other side of the aisle” not as enemies or idiots, but as fellow leaders with truthful perspective to share and gifts to offer. And by the way, humble people accept the outcome of elections when they lose; and don’t gloat when they win.

Are they categorical?

Another litmus test of whether a leader’s confidence is merely bluster is to listen to whether they speak categorically. People who paint with a broad brush, who make lots of absolute statements, who see life as black and white—these leaders are the scariest because they sound THE MOST confident of all! My experience has been that they are hiding something behind their categorical rhetoric—their uncertainties, inadequacies, fears, and even the truth. Buyer beware! These folks can sound so sure of themselves, come on so strong, that we’re almost afraid to not believe them.

Granted this is a very short list. There are many other important things to listen for and pay attention to. But even with just three qualifiers, are you thinking what I’m thinking? Is any candidate up to snuff? Does anyone embody all of them? And how can I even know given the limited nature of what I hear and read about them?

Yesterday when I filled out my absentee ballot, I looked up each candidate and tried my best to assess whether I experienced them as realistic, humble, and not categorical. It was my best attempt at being a thoughtful voter. Honestly, it’s never seemed as important as it does today.

*Should I Stay Christian? A Guide for the Doubters, the Disappointed, and the Disillusioned is Brian McLaren’s latest book. While it is not a question I am asking, I know many people who are. So far, I’ve appreciated much that I’ve read.


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