Normalcy Bias, Motivated Blindness and Evangelism

David Brooks recently wrote an interesting article about misplaced feelings of superiority in the scandal at Penn State. His point is that many people enjoy the belief that, had they been in a position to stop sexual abuse, they would have done so. In reality, however, most people suffer from either “Normalcy Bias” (in which people rationalize abominable circumstances by believing the atrocities they’ve seen are normal) or “Motivated Blindness” (in which people ignore situations they find potentially harmful to address).

There are several ways in which this is applicable to Christians concerned about apologetics and evangelism.

First, “normalcy bias” can be a problem within Christian churches. It is easy to see doctrinal changes within a church – particularly if these changes are made gradually over time – as simply a normal occurrence. Paul warned of this when he said to the Corinthians, “For if he that cometh preacheth another Jesus, whom we have not preached, or if ye receive another spirit, which ye have not received, or another gospel, which ye have not accepted, ye might well bear with him.” (2 Corinthians 11:4). It is therefore vital for Christians to always be like the Bereans who checked the Scriptures to see whether everything they were taught is in accordance with God’s word (Acts 17:11; cf. 1 John 4:1).

Christians aren’t the only ones who can suffer from “normalcy bias:” members of alternative religions can also do so. This is one of a number of reasons – including psychological strategies for coping with cognitive dissonance (such as denial), as well as the obvious problem of spiritual deception – why members of such groups can remain faithful members even after being presented with arguments and evidence that would seem to undermine (if not obliterate) the faith of a rational person. For example, Jehovah’s Witnesses will rationalize the Watchtower Society’s continually changing doctrines and prophecies as being normal developments within God’s organization.

We therefore need to be patient with members of other religions: it can be highly difficult for them to realize that their beliefs and practices are abnormal, and that they need to leave their religious group if they truly want to worship the true God.

Related to all of this is the problem of “motivated blindness.” Christians can be paralyzed when confronted with problems in their churches because they would risk a great deal by confronting the problems: friends, family, and in some cases even employment. The problem is the same for members of cults and alternative religions, who risk all of these things – and, according to the teaching of many groups, their salvation itself – if they confront doctrinal problems or issues in church governance.

The Bible warns us that there may unfortunately be occasions in which Christians are called to choose Christ, even though it means losing one’s family (Matthew 10:37) – a fact to which former Jehovah’s Witnesses can attest – and it likewise says that Christ’s followers can expect persecution (John 15:20; 2 Timothy 2:12; 1 Peter 4:12-13). The writer of Hebrews even lists some of the ways in which God’s followers have suffered for their faith (11:35-38). All this means that, as unpleasant as it can be, there are situations in which it may be necessary for Christians to suffer in order to stand up against false teachers.

At the same time, while the Bible says that these things may be necessary, this does not mean Christians should be blas̩ about the suffering others are experiencing. We must be patient with members of other religions as they are presented with the Gospel: it may take a long time Рsometimes many years Рbefore their relationship with God is such that they are empowered to leave their group. Christian evangelism means more than simply sharing Christian teaching with others: it also means providing ongoing encouragement and support for people as they learn about God and grow in their fledgling relationship with him.

“Normalcy bias” and “motivated blindness” are serious problems, both inside and outside the Church. Understanding the problems, however, will equip us to better fulfill our calling and help others.