The medieval availability bias

The Woman Clothed with the Sun, Madrid, Biblioteca Nacional, MS Vitrina 14-2, 187r (11th century)

The shortest way may not be the best, but it’s the most convenient. A shortcut may not actually get you where you want, but the promise it makes is too hard to say no to.

Humans are great shortcurt makers, and we seem to be wired for finding shortcuts and living by them.

The Israeli psychologist and Nobel Memoral Prize laureate Daniel Kahneman has famously argued that there are two types of human thought: A fast, automatic, shortcutting type which he called System 1 and a slow, calculating, reflexive type called System 2.

System 1 is responsible for things like reading text written on a bus, saying ‘sorry’ as a default response (if you’re in certain countries), identifying an immediate threat in the vicinity, or detecting sadness or joy in one’s voice. On the other hand, System 2 includes more complex operations like focusing attention on a particular person in a crowd, doing 2-digit multiplications in your head, riding your bike through heavy traffic or reading a piece of non-fiction prose. We allocate one type of thinking or another to each activity we do, sometimes correctly, sometimes less so.

One way System 1 thinking seeks to accomplish a task is by generating mental shortcuts in the interest of speed, economy and convenience, allowing the mind to grasp and evaluate topics and decisions quickly and easily. One such type of shortcut is what’s been known as the availability heuristic or availability bias. The theory is that the most immediate and most available option is to be preferred. Alternatives which are farther away from one’s mind are evaluated as less relevant, and less attractive. The most easily recognisable (and therefore least imaginative, speculative or examined) explanation for a given phenomenon will, under the availability bias, win the day. If it’s easier to think it, it must be true.

A kind of availability bias may also explain the connections late-ancient and medieval theologians made when they engaged in symbolic and allegorical exegesis. For example, the identification of the woman clothed with the sun from the Book of Revelation with the Virgin Mary was made as early as the 4th century AD by theologians seeking to explain the unusual presence of an unidentified woman in the Apocalypse narrative. Identifying this figure with the Virgin was an exegetical shortcut which sought to explain the unfamiliar through familiar, and conveniently hermeneutical concepts. In time, the Apocalypse-Mary identification was justified, rationalised and also turned into Church dogma by several popes. Similarly, an availability heuristic in the early Church may also have been responsible for ‘finding Jesus’ in Old Testament prophetic and devotional texts. For when the readers of the Christocentric gospels turned the minds to the narratives of the Old Testament, the shortcuts would rapidly form, enabling a powerful heuristic, whose results would subsequently morph into full-fledged theology.

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