Confirmation Bias, Groupthink, and the Tower of Babel

Have you ever wondered about the Tower of Babel story? Doesn’t it seem a bit strange that God is troubled by a group of people building a tower? Many read this as a simple myth explaining the origin of multiple languages. I believe this is a different kind of story, but in order to see it, you have to approach the text with a close read, the way we teach students to read here at Gesher.

This is a story about the dangers of groupthink, which is actually an instance of what social psychologists call confirmation bias – our tendency to prioritize or interpret information in ways that confirm hypotheses that we already hold. We are particularly vulnerable to this type of thinking when we find ourselves among people with whom we share backgrounds, opinions, values, etc. In such settings, ideas are often not tested rigorously, assumptions are not challenged, and deep examination of problems from multiple angles is not as likely to occur.

I think that the story of Babel is a warning about the dangers of groupthink. In the beginning of the story, we learn that everyone speaks only one language. I believe that this is a metaphor for a group that lacks the strength to hear opinions that differ from their own, and therefore fails to examine its motivations and desires critically.

A clue that this phenomenon is completely ubiquitous in this group of people is found here:

וַיֹּאמְרוּ אִישׁ אֶל רֵעֵהוּ הָבָה נִלְבְּנָה לְבֵנִים וְנִשְׂרְפָה לִשְׂרֵפָה וַתְּהִי לָהֶם הַלְּבֵנָה לְאָבֶן וְהַחֵמָר הָיָה לָהֶם לַחֹמֶר

“And they said to one another, “Come on, let’s make bricks and fire them.” And they had brick for stone, and they had bitumen for mortar.”
Genesis 11:3, translation by Richard Elliot Friedman

The rabbis note the apparently unnecessary inclusion of the words “to one another”. Isn’t this already clear from “and they said”? Who else could they be talking to? The rabbinic commentaries infer from this close read that every single man, woman, and child was part of this problem.

God intervenes, and a surface reading of the story makes us wonder why. Could God really be feeling threatened by this? Who cares if they build a tall building? But that is not what a close reading yields at all. God isn’t threatened – he simply understands that human beings can’t reach their full potential without encountering a diversity of people and experiences. If we live without the understanding of self that we can only gain when we interact with “others,” then we will never truly have meaningful relationships with the important people in our lives, or with God.

It is through exposure to other languages that we begin to appreciate the unique aspects of our mother tongue, and it is through the exchange of ideas with people whose opinions we don’t share that we refine and clarify our own perspectives. The message of the story is that in order to thrive, a healthy organization, team or relationship must foster a culture in which respectful disagreement is welcome.

I hope that this can serve as the setting of a Kavannah – a direction or intention – for the school’s important learning this year. We all want the same thing – a thriving, excellent school. If we disagree about the particulars, let’s open ourselves to learning from each other and trusting one another. Groupthink would have us all singing the same note, and dysfunctional conversation sounds like dissonance. But the synthesis of different perspectives and ideas will let us sing in harmony. It is a radical act to truly make a person with whom you disagree feel heard.

What can you do to make sure that those who disagree with you know you actually hear them?

Shabbat Shalom,