My team never gets the benefit of the doubt! — Selective Perception Bias

By Scott Hughes

Two men who are dressed to cheer on different teams. One is happy, one is looking disappointed.

seanlockephotography / 123RF Stock Photo

If you are a sports fan, you probably know people with selective perception bias. You may not always like those people, or you may avoid speaking with them about their favorite sports teams. Why? Because THEIR team or THEIR athlete is always treated unfairly. The refs always make calls that are detrimental to THEIR team. The players for THEIR team never get the benefit of the doubt.

If you have any doubt about the selective perception bias, ask sports fans their opinions regarding Tom Brady. If they are fans of his, then they are likely to tell you that he’s been treated unfairly. If they aren’t fans, then they’ll tell you that he deserves his punishment and probably more!

Being aware of this bias probably doesn’t keep me from being guilty of this bias toward my favorite teams. Because of my fandom and loyalty, I watch the game from a different vantage point from those whose loyalties lie elsewhere. If an umpire’s call is questionable, I’m much more likely to give my team the benefit of the doubt. I’m biased, and that influences my perception of the game.

The same selective perception bias shapes the way we view our friends, family, and politicians. We will give certain people the benefit of the doubt. We’ll extend compassion and grace, even if they do or say something we’re not in total agreement with. This works in reverse for those we distrust or view with suspicion. We won’t extend to this group the same grace we would to our “select” group. Here, then, is when we come to face the real challenge Jesus gave his disciples, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44, NRSV). It is really hard to extend compassion, grace, or the benefit of the doubt when those not in our select group act or say things that get under our skin. Jesus’ prescription for how we handle those not in our select group can change our attitude toward those we view as enemies, and ultimately that will change us!

The simple acknowledgement of this bias should give us pause when we begin to perceive someone or a group as an enemy. Once we are aware we are engaging in selective perception bias, we can question ourselves, “Am I using a filter that clouds my judgment about this person or this group?” “Am I suspicious of everything a political candidate says?” “What might I need to learn from them?”

The structure of the sample lessons for Courageous Conversations attempts to help participants not only hear from perspectives they would otherwise dismiss, but aim for self-reflection so that they will become more aware of the selective perception bias and other biases. Biases lose their hold on us when we acknowledge their existence. Only then are we freed toward maturity of self-awareness and better able to discern God’s guidance.

Such intentional reflection should also enable us to have compassion toward others, or it might even bring us to empathize with a person or group we might tend to dismiss. (Excluding Tom Brady. He’s just evil! Though I guess I should be praying for him.)

Reflective Actions:

Read Matthew 5:43-48. Listen to a political candidate (or political party) you disagree with. Or listen to a teacher or preacher from a denomination or religion you have misgivings about. Do your best to extend compassion, try to give the other person the benefit of the doubt, and attempt to see the world as he or she does. Later ask yourself, “What did I learn from this experiment?”

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