The only thing harder than changing someone else’s opinion is changing one’s own.
Pharaoh’s behavior throughout the plagues is perplexing. Despite the miraculous nature of the plagues and the devastating destruction they brought on Egypt, Pharaoh refuses to acknowledge G-d or let Bnei Yisrael leave Egypt. One explanation that would obviate the need to understand Pharaoh’s behavior on a psychological level would be to posit that G-d took control of his decisions and made him inhumanely stubborn.
Yet, even if we were to resolve the philosophical challenges of G-d removing a man’s free will, we would be left with the textual challenge that for the first five plagues, the Torah state that it wasn’t G-d, but Pharaoh, who hardened his heart. It is only at the sixth plague and onward that the Torah says that G-d hardened Pharaoh’s heart. So how can we understand such an extreme and self-destructive rigidity on a psychological level?
In an experiment conducted at Stanford University, researchers recruited participants based on their opinion related to capital punishment. Half the students recruited were in favor and half against. The students were given two studies to read, one that provided data in support of capital punishment’s ability to deter crime and another that provided data against its efficacy to deter crime.
Those who were already in favor of capital punishment rated the data in support of their view highly compelling and the data that challenged their view as unconvincing. The reverse was true for those against capital punishment. They rated the data in support of their claim convincing and the data against their claim not compelling.
In truth, the data was fabricated to provide what were objectively similar claims in both studies. Despite there being no logical reason to support their own side over the other side, each side believed the evidence that proved their point and disregarded the evidence against it.
This phenomenon, known as the confirmation bias, helps us understand why it’s so hard to change our own, or other people’s, opinions. Once we believe something, our minds search for evidence to prove that belief and disregard evidence that calls it into question.
Pharaoh’s refusal to believe in the miraculous power of G-d is evident even before the plagues begin. When Aharon’s staff swallows up the necromancers’ staffs (Shemot 7:12), that doesn’t impress Pharaoh. In order to conform with his own way of viewing the world, he hardens his heart and assumes Aharon is just practicing stronger magic (see Ibn Ezra).
The same is true of Pharaoh’s reaction after the first two plagues. He assumes Moshe and Aharon are just beating the magicians at their own game.
The stronger challenge to his worldview came when the necromancers proclaimed that the third plague was beyond their abilities – “it is the finger of G-d.” Yet, despite the evidence, Pharaoh still hardened his heart. In fact, the Ramban points out that this is the last we see of these necromancers. Pharaoh dismisses and silences opinions that don’t conform to his own.
Even by the fifth plague, which clearly only impacted the Egyptian animals and not the animals of Bnei Yisrael, Pharaoh still refused to look at the counter-evidence and hardened his own heart (see Seforno). Taken from this perspective, Pharaoh’s irrational and self-destructive behavior is just an extreme version of a common human condition, present within us all.
So if we find ourselves constantly confirming our own opinions and easily rejecting the evidence against us, it may be time to take a step back and evaluate things on a deeper level. Our opinions can still be correct, but to account for the confirmation bias, it may be wise to analyze and weigh the evidence in a balanced manner.