Category Archives: Cognitive biases

Integrative Psychotherapy V

Now here in chapter 4 of Integrative Psychotherapy, McMinn and Campbell are starting to map out their 3 domained model of persons and psychotherapy. As an aside, the next chapter will cover how to do assessment and case conceptualization within this model and the remaining 6 chapters (excluding the conclusion) will be spent exploring each domain and how to apply the concepts into practice (2 chapters per domain). Should be a fun ride.

If you will recall from their chapter 1, they imagine the imago dei as a good rubric of the nature of persons and as best described by its functional, structural, and relational aspects (i.e., behavior, cognitive/moral, and relational aspects). They note that most therapy models tend to address one of these 3 domains problems: cognitions and challenging distorted thinking/acting, schema or insight-oriented work, and relational/experiential work. Instead of separating these domains, McMinn and Campbell define them as necessary and interconnected. “A person engages in functional behavior because of certain structural capacities, and similarly, relationships influence a person’s [behaviors and schemas].” (p. 115)

I think the best way to understand the interconnected parts of their model is to see it. Page 136 offers a nice illustration (Thanks Mark for making this available.). Note how behaviors, thoughts and feelings are influenced by situations but also arise out of core beliefs/schema and relational experiences. Note also the dark arrows depict the common path of influence but that feed-back loops are in play as well. Though I wish they gave more detail here how the domains interrelate (that would be a very fat personality text!), they do a fine job illustrating what they mean by discussing the case of “James,” a man who suffers with anxiety and things his value comes from meeting others’ expectations.

Domain 1 (Functional/behavioral) lends itself to symptom reduction and skill-building activities (the heart of cognitive-behavioral therapy). A counselor might address how James might learn so anxiety reduction techniques. But stopping here leaves James and the counselor wanting more. Why does James view himself and the world this way? Where do these distorted views come from? McMinn and Campbell recognize that these views are very hard to disrupt because they are so well-engrained through experiences. Domain 2 (Structural) then looks deeper to settled core beliefs using insight-oriented techniques to expose unconscious schemas that might uncover how these schemas got started (we learn, among other things, that James’ father was harsh and that he made some understandable but problematic choices/interpretations that now lock him in a pattern of perceiving himself as a failure–even though this view violates his own Christian belief).

Domain 3 (Relational). IP recognizes that formative relationships shape our schemas AND that the formative relationship between client and counselor provides experiences to shape and reshape our experience of self, other, and God, mirroring the incarnation of Christ.

Throughout this chapter the authors show how the IP 3 domain model is similar and different from standard CT. Yes CT is interested in reducing distorted thinking and building life skills. But IP also values insight and experiential aspects to therapy and provide additional opportunities to expose settled core beliefs (See p. 132 for a great chart illustrating how IP stands as a bridge between CT and insight-oriented models). IP attempts to show how the interconnections of situations, past experiences, developed core beliefs, habits, etc. illustrate both determinism (stuff outside us shapes us significantly) AND human agency (our choices also shape us). They also explain that classic CT has not done a good job explaining how relationships, motivation, emotions and culture play in person development. Further IP is not merely CT with some additions because it is built on a Christian view of persons (creation, fall, redemption, imago dei, etc.)

MY THOUGHTS AND ONE QUESTION: Now, we are getting into the meat of their model. It is good to hear their theoretical foundations in previous chapters but now McMinn and Campbell show us how they see how humans develop. While acknowledging the Fall, here’s what I see about their view:

1. Humans are intrinsically motivated to move toward God and long for a proper relationship to God, others, and creation.
2. The fall brings misery, brokenness, and difficulty (our fundamental problem is broken relationships)
3. Fallen humans are ripe for cognitive distortion.
4. When good longings (see pt. 2) are not met, we make bad but understandable choices (even adaptive at the time) and interpretations which lead to formative experiences that we interpret in distorted ways which in turn lead to more cognitive, moral/schema, and relational problems.

Classic Reformed theology suggests we NOT ONLY inherit a broken world, we also inherit Adam and Eve’s desire to be on par with God. We have an intrinsic motivation to be God and our denial of God comes out of this motivation (Rom 1). So here’s my question (in 2 parts):

1. Do we begin with good longings that we attempt to meet in naive and foolish ways (a la James in chapter 4), OR do we begin at birth to read things in distorted ways because we are looking to be our own God? Or both
2. Does this distinction matter? How would it impact our therapy model or application?

Calvin seems to support both ideas. He says our heart are idol factories AND he says our problem is not so much what we want/desire, but how much we want it. Notice that if you emphasize the “bad response to a bad situation” then it might end up dismissing personal culpability. However, if you emphasize the “bad heart seeks self promotion” then it might end up missing the all important influence passed on from a broken world and thereby blaming people for being sinned against.


Filed under book reviews, christian psychology, Cognitive biases, personality, Psychology, Uncategorized

Personal stories and the art of intellectual inquiry

Our personal stories are far more shaping of our views on things than most of us care to admit. In most academic settings we love to discuss and debate matters and show our intellectual prowess. In these settings, to think emotionally, or to be biased by past experiences usually kills our chances of winning a point. No, we must stay logical and stick to the facts. Consider what happens if a person arguing for abortion rights reveals that they had an abortion. Consider what happens if the person arguing that the Scriptures do not teach that homosexuality is wrong reveals their own failed efforts to change their sexual orientation. Put yourself on the other side of each debate. What do you think? Well, their bias is obvious. But if you haven’t had an abortion or if you haven’t experienced homosexual desire, then your bias is obvious as well. So, to avoid these point-killing experiences, one sticks to their intellectual defense of a particular belief.  

By the way, personal anecdotes are not the only non-factual influencers of our beliefs. Personality styles also weigh heavily. I have a friend who loves a good debate. They energize him. To make a point, he willingly uses hyperbole. He takes risks and tries on ideas he hasn’t fully considered. I have another friend who weighs every issue ever so carefully. He tediously considers each and every point and methodically explains his position. He rarely speaks out of impulse and so hardly ever moves from a previously decided position. In both cases personality influences my friends and influences their conversation partners. 

I have noticed that in quasi-intellectual settings (e.g., blogs, class discussions, etc.) personal stories are very common, even encouraged. The story enriches the reader/listener’s feel for the subject. And once a story has been told, it seems to kill any chance that another might present opposing thoughts and ideas critical of that experience. To critically evaluate the story-teller’s position is to disrespect that person’s life and value—so it would seem. A friend of mine recently bemoaned that it seems impossible in the public domain to call a dumb idea by its rightful name (unless the person is taking a conservative view of things).

So, what do we do with personal stories? Though they shape our ways of seeing the world and deciding what is right, it does not mean that we are incapable of intellectual inquiry and arriving at beliefs that counter our own experience. But it does beg the question as to how we should weigh personal stories in our dialogs about truth claims.

What if we dispense with personal stories? What would be lost? Gained?

“Just the facts, ma’am” isn’t really possible. Everything we believe is attached to experience and personal bias. But what if we could curtail the use of personal stories and anecdotes—would it help? Consider the debate on homosexuality. If we eliminated “I had a friend who…” stories, what would happen to the discussion? We might also eliminate conversations that start and end on fringe matters. This would be helpful since conversations starting with extreme situations rarely return to core issues. We might be able to look, in depth, at the key issues: (i.e., interpretation of key biblical texts, pastoral responses to those with same-sex attraction, exploration of sexual identity development and whether identity is immutable or not, etc.) without distraction by stories of abuse and misuse by the various parties.

But what would be lost? Compassion. Understanding. Practical responses. It seems that narratives humanize issues. We see the facts as connected to real people. Stories give context that help us to understand the experience of another. Anecdotes spawn creative responses that have real-world impact and avoid one dimensional “easy” answers. When I was in seminary, one of my professors had a sign that said, “for every complex problem, there is an answer that is clear, easy, elegant, and wrong.”

Wedding Intellectual Inquiry and Experience 

So, how do we thoughtfully, compassionately, critically explore a controversial topic in a manner that leaves us more loving than when we started, more understanding of its complexities, more aware of (and willing to challenge) our own biases, more aware of our chosen bases for our belief systems, more capable of differentiating dogma from opinion, and more clear (and willing to state so) on what we do and don’t believe?


Monday I will present some possible ways to wed both our stories and the pursuit of the truth. 


Filed under Cognitive biases, Communication

Christian put-downs? Do they fit in the mission of God?

In the world that I live in (theological academia) we engage in hearty discussions about the positions and ideas others put in the public domain. When discussing a theological point, we debate who is the closest to being right and are quick to point out where eminent thinkers have wandered off the path of reason and truth. Most of the time, this is done in the spirit of desiring to have increasing knowledge and wisdom. Well, maybe not most of the time, but at least part of the time. Of course, we usually think that our thoughts and ideas are closer to God’s truth than our counterparts. This is especially true when we begin to think critically about long-held ideas and beliefs–ideas and beliefs that we, along with the majority, held explicitly or implicitly. But something else happens when we find ourselves in the minority opinion. Continue reading

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Filed under biblical counseling, Cognitive biases, Doctrine/Theology, Evangelicals, missional

Who do you represent? Race, identity, and the cost of being a minority

Has anyone ever asked you to speak for a whole people group? If you represent a racial or cultural minority, you have undoubtedly been asked to explain, defend–even apologize for–your group’s ideas, thoughts, beliefs, practices. I suspect most Christians have had that experience some time in their life. Some well-known Christian blows up his life and you are asked to explain how someone could get up on Sunday and say Christian words but in private be having an affair. You are asked to explain why, “you evangelicals talk about grace but hate homosexuals” or something similar.

So how do you feel when you have to speak for a whole people group? Continue reading

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Filed under church and culture, Cognitive biases, Cultural Anthropology, Identity, Race

Righteous indignation: Why we love it and why it endangers the soul

The last few days I have been listening to the various pundits discuss the debacle at Walter Reed Military Hospital. If you haven’t been following it, this link will help. In short, Building 18 at the hospital complex is rat and roach infested AND those wounded soldiers living in it are swamped with bureaucratic barriers and are unable to get the proper treatment they need.

Enter righteous indignation. Continue reading

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Filed under anger, Cognitive biases, News and politics

Are you a humble person? 7 habits to consider

We all struggle with self-righteousness. We see other’s sins and wish they would stop doing them. Often our vision of their flaws are quite detailed and correct. Yet, how do we maintain a balance between seeing other’s sins and seeing our own.


Here’s a list of habits humble people need to cultivate. It was made by Cornelius Plantinga at a CCEF conference 2 years back.

1. Accept ordinary deficiencies with good will and good humor without feeling threatened or needing to say something about it. (Does it feel like it reflects poorly on you when others close by (family!) have deficiencies?)
2. Ask a lot of questions because this is the way of wisdom
3. Wait for an invitation. Don’t presume your life will be fascinating to other people
4. Be a good receiver of gifts and graces from God and others; be willing to be indebted and grateful
5. Don’t try to make a child over into your image. Children aren’t projects
6. Be filled with irony and humor, especially about yourself and your own humility
7. Own up to your sins without explanation or defense

A good start…now if only I could remember…


Filed under Cognitive biases, self-deception

Euphemisms: Using language to hide evil

I want to share some lines from a statement purportedly made (dated 12/15/06) by the outgoing Ambassador John R. Miller, Director of the  Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons. These lines are an excellent example of how the use of names/euphemisms cover up the reality of grotesque evil. [NOTE: I received a pdf document with Miller’s signature from a reputable source but I can’t validate it by finding it on the U.S. Department of State website. If someone locates this statement, let me know.]
It is my belief that we image God when we follow in Adam’s footsteps naming things as we see fit (Gen. 2:19-20). But unlike Adam (at the time of naming the animals), we are fallen creatures–prone to distorting names and calling things that are evil by flowery or neutral names. In fact, that is exactly what the Serpent does to Adam and Eve. He calls eating the forbidden fruit “seeking wisdom” when it is really a coup d’etat.

Enter Ambassador Miller’s statments. Here are some excerpts: Continue reading

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Filed under Abuse, Cognitive biases, Great Quotes, News and politics, self-deception, suffering

The reasonableness of sin: Why what I do isn’t so bad

Ever notice how our sins are a reasonable response to our situation? We attack/defend with hurtful words because someone offended and slandered us. We overeat because we are lonely. We punish our kids because they make us crazy. We give the cold shoulder because someone didn’t keep their promise. We cheat on our taxes because the government wastes our money.

In my counseling office, I frequently hear the context given behind someone’s destructive behavior, especially in couple or family conflicts. The set up goes like this: “Can you believe just how evil this person/organization is? This is what they did. I know I shouldn’t have done ______ but I just couldn’t take it anymore. I just had to say something.” (read: I had to drop the bomb that would allow me to be vindicated, get the upper hand, point out how their sins are far worse than my own).

Its Adam and Eve all over again. “It was the woman…” Its Saul all over again. “Well, I destroyed most of the booty and I only brought these back for a sacrifice to God.” We find our sin reasonable to us. And so our “repentance” to others and to God sounds like, “Yes, but…”

Why do we want to be vindicated? Why are we so willing to engage in black/white thinking about other people’s bad behavior and yet we want our own behavior excused due to circumstances? Funny, we never get what we want, but we keep trying all the same.

Its the actor-observer error (or called by some as the fundamental attribution error) whereby we explain other’s bad behavior as a result of their bad character (Its because you’re a jerk!) and our own bad behavior as a result of our situation (its not really me. Its your fault!)

Lord have mercy.

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Filed under Cognitive biases, self-deception, sin