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Most of us think we’re smarter than most of us! In a recent large survey, 65% of Americans rated themselves more intelligent than average.[1] [Sounds of unrestrained laughter, barking, and howling – the Spaniel and pals]. Believing we’re very smart, we assume we’re usually right. But is that confidence warranted?

“Do you see a man wise in his own eyes?
There is more hope for a fool than for him.”

Proverbs 26:12

In the course of my medical career, I have known brilliant physicians of many different faiths. Among the most committed adherents, it is safe to say that all were quite sure regarding the truth of their particular faith. But each tradition contradicts all others in one or more matters. They could all be wrong in part or in whole; they cannot all be right. Logically, we must conclude that not only is it possible to be brilliant, certain, and wrong, but that it is common.

In the previous post, we looked at several nonrational factors that can lead to false beliefs: heuristics and biases, emotions, and social influences. We noted that education and intelligence are unreliable predictors of rational thinking.

Yet false beliefs comprise but one side of the coin. The other side, of equal or even greater importance, is the level of certainty attached to those beliefs. Confidence is our estimate of the probability that we are correct. It is a belief concerning our belief—metacognition, in psychological parlance.

The Illusion of Certainty

Ideally, our confidence should be roughly proportional to the mathematical probability that we are correct. In other words, if we are 90% certain, we should be right 90% of the time. But studies repeatedly show that our degree of certainty consistently exceeds our accuracy. For example, people who are “99% sure” are wrong 50% of the time. This disparity both defines and demonstrates the phenomenon of overconfidence. Our unwarranted certainty could be blamed on misplaced trust; that is, by placing too much credence in an unreliable source. However, since we tend to favor sources we already agree with (confirmation bias), excess certainty usually reflects an excessive faith in ourselves (pride).

In his 2009 tome On Being Certain, neuroscientist Robert Burton argued that certainty is not a state of reason but of feeling, influenced by unconscious physiologic processes.[2] Certainty is mostly illusion, Burton argues, and there is considerable evidence supporting this hypothesis.

Overconfidence has been demonstrated and measured in many domains besides intelligence: driving ability, economic forecasting, and medicine, for example. In almost every domain studied to date, significant majorities express a confidence in their abilities far beyond what is warranted, or even mathematically possible. [“Like my distant cousin who somehow still thinks he can catch a car” – the Spaniel].

Sometimes, the least competent people are the most confident, whereas the most skilled and knowledgeable people slightly underestimate their ability. This phenomenon has been dubbed the “Dunning-Kruger” effect, after the original researchers whose landmark paper, “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments,” not only opened a new avenue of research but has prompted many a smile from those who sensed its ring of truth.[3]

The Intelligence Trap

Highly intelligent people constitute another group with an elevated risk of overconfidence. Intelligent people know they are intelligent, making them less likely to doubt themselves, respect other opinions, or change their minds. They are also every bit as attuned, if not more so, to social influences that motivate belief.[4]

Highly intelligent people can and do believe crazy things. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of the ruthlessly logical Sherlock Holmes, was a devout believer in spiritualism and fairies. [“I once knew a Border Collie who claimed he’d been abducted by penguins” – the Spaniel]. Albert Einstein expressed a naïve and unshakeable optimism concerning Lenin, Stalin, and the Soviet Union:

I honor Lenin as a man who completely sacrificed himself and devoted all his energy to the realization of social justice. I do not consider his methods practical, but one thing is certain: men of his type are the guardians and restorers of humanity.[5]

In The Intelligence Trap, science writer David Robson informs us that:

  • College graduates are more likely than nongraduates to believe in ESP and psychic healing
  • People with IQ’s over 140 are more likely to max out on their credit
  • High IQ individuals consume more alcohol and are more likely to smoke or take illegal drugs[6]

While the popular perception is that intelligent people are naturally skeptical, in fact all humans are believing machines. We drift with the cultural tides, embracing popular ideas on the flimsiest of evidence, then clutch those beliefs tenaciously to protect our egos, strut our virtue, justify our actions, and advertise loyalty to our in-group. This view may seem cynical, but it is well-validated.

There are many strategies for overcoming the “intelligence trap.” They include cognitive reflection, actively open-minded thinking, curiosity, emotional awareness and regulation, having a growth mindset, distrusting the herd, and consistent skepticism. However one habit of mind undergirds all others: an attitude of intellectual humility.

Knowing Our Limits

Intellectual humility could be defined as merely having a realistic view of our mental processing; viz., that our knowledge is inevitably limited, our thinking is unavoidably biased, and that even the smartest among us are prone to error.[7]

In recent decades, psychology has embraced a model of personality based on the “big five”: openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. The more recent version adds a sixth measure: HH, for honesty-humility. Researchers have demonstrated that HH shows a consistent negative correlation with all three elements of the “dark triad”: psychopathy, narcissism, and Machiavellianism.[8] [“We just call that 'being a cat'” – the Spaniel]. On the other hand, HH correlates positively with healthier traits such as cooperation and self-control.

In a 2018 paper from UC Davis, researchers showed that intellectual humility is associated with openness during disagreement, and that promoting a growth mindset served to enhance intellectual humility.[9] Intellectual humility also helps to reduce polarization and conflict.[10] In one study, it was even superior to general intelligence in predicting academic achievement.[11]

Research Affirms Scripture

According to most theologians in the Judeo-Christian tradition, pride is the deadliest sin. Humility is its opposite. It may be tempting to assume this peril concerns only the skeptic, but it’s not just about “them.” It’s about all of us. And the greater the visibility or the higher one’s position in Christian circles, the greater the problem is likely to be.

“Do not be wise in your own conceits.”

romans 12:16, KJV

Scripture repeatedly warns against unwarranted confidence in our own wisdom. Decades of research in cognitive science shows this to be a common human problem that only worsens with intelligence. The antidote begins with intellectual humility, an ancient virtue whose wisdom has been validated by the latest empirical data.

Article also posted (without canine commentary) at Reasons to Believe on August 9, 2018

Endnotes

[1]. Patrick R. Heck, Daniel J. Simons, and Christopher F. Chabris, “65% of Americans Believe They Are above Average in Intelligence: Results of Two Nationally Representative Surveys,” PLoS ONE 13, no. 7 (July 3, 2018): e0200103, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0200103.

2. Robert Burton, On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You’re Not (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2008).

3. Justin Kruger and David Dunning, “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One's Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 77, no. 6 (January 2000): 1121–34, doi:10.1037//0022-3514.77.6.1121.

4. Dan M. Kahan, “Ideology, Motivated Reasoning, and Cognitive Reflection,” Judgment and Decision Making 8, no. 4 (July 2013): 407–24.

5. Lewis Samuel Feuer, Einstein and the Generations of Science 2nd ed. (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1989), 25. [JA10] [SW11] 

6. David Robson, The Intelligence Trap: Why Smart People Make Dumb Mistakes (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2019).

7. Peter C. Hill et al., “A Few Good Measures: Colonel Jessup and Humility,” in Everett L. Worthington Jr., Don E. Davis, and Joshua N. Hook, eds., Handbook of Humility: Theory, Research, and Implications (New York: Routledge, 2017).

8. Joseph Leman et al., “Personality Predictors and Correlates of Humility,” in Worthington, Davis, and Hook, eds., Handbook of Humility.

9. Tenelle Porter and Karina Schumann, “Intellectual Humility and Openness to the Opposing View,” Self and Identity 17, issue 2 (August 9, 2017): 139–62, doi:10.1080/15298868.2017.1361861.

10. Porter and Schumann, “Intellectual Humility.”

11. Bradley P. Owens, Michael D. Johnson, and Terence R. Mitchell, “Expressed Humility in Organizations: Implications for Performance, Teams, and Leadership,” Organization Science 24, no. 5 (February 12, 2013): 1517–38, doi:10.1287/orsc.1120.0795.



In this podcast recorded at Reasons to Believe in May 2019, Philosopher-Theologian Ken Samples and I discuss the nature of belief, pride, humility, and the life of the mind.

Topics:
-My personal journey from early atheism to Christian faith
Are people rational?
The role of emotions in belief formation
Intellectual pride and humility
"The Intelligence Trap" by David Robson
"The God Delusion" by Richard Dawkins
Henry IV and Pope Gregory VII
Tenwek Hospital
"As an atheist, I truly believe Africa needs God." Matthew Paris, The Sunday Times, December 27, 2008
-Responding to skeptics

Photo by Bill Davenport from FreeImages

“Pride is the first sin that ever entered into the universe, and it’s the last that is rooted out. It is God’s most stubborn enemy.” - Jonathan Edwards
Traditionally, Christians have been of the persuasion that sins are bad, and some sins are worse than others. What do you think is the worst sin? Murder? Rape? Idolatry? Blasphemy? For most of church history, there was little disagreement in the answer. From Augustine in the fourth century, to Edwards in the 18th century, to Dorothy Sayers in the 20th century, it was a one word answer: pride.
The commencement of all sin.[1] The root of all heresy.[2] The first sin.[3] The greatest sin.[4] The head and origin of all sin.[5]
On what grounds did they reach this conclusion? Did they just make it up? Did they value self-abasement? The answer lies in Scripture:
The fear of the Lord is to hate evil; Pride and arrogance and the evil way And the perverse mouth I hate.[6] Everyone proud in heart is an abomination to the Lord; Though they join forces, none will go unpunished.[7] Do you see a man wise in his own eyes? There is more hope for a fool than for him.[8]
So what’s pride? How can we not do it if we don’t know what “it” is? The ancients took care of that for us as well:
“The desire for inordinate exaltation” - Augustine “Inordinate desire of one’s own excellence” - Aquinas “The excessive love of one’s own excellence” - Catholic Encyclopedia “Pride is nothing else (as the learned say) but love of thy own excellency, that is, of thy own worship.” - Walter Hilton
But we can make this even simpler: pride is thinking too highly of ourselves. And for those passionate in the service of Christ, it is their greatest weakness. As Edwards wrote:
The first and worst cause of error that prevails in our day is spiritual pride. This is the main door by which the devil comes into the hearts of those who are zealous for the advancement of Christ. …. Pride is much more difficult to discern than any other corruption because, by nature, pride is a person having too high a thought of himself. Is it any surprise, then, that a person who has too high a thought of himself is unaware of it? He thinks the opinion he has of himself has just grounds and therefore is not too high.[9]
To visualize the concept, imagine a scale. Our self-perception should be in general balance with who we really are. Consider traits such as intelligence, skill, expertise, virtue, or any other matter of importance. When our self-perception in any area exceeds reality, that is pride. If the scale is heavily tipped on the reality side, other factors may be in play: exaggerated or false humility, lack of confidence, or poor self-image. In practice, a perfect balance may be unattainable. If we must err, let us err on the side of modesty. https://i1.wp.com/swilling.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/06/pride-scale.jpg?w=900 The first casualty of pride is self-awareness, so we don’t know ourselves well enough to recognize it. Often – perhaps most of the time – we are unaware of its presence. Tim Keller likened it to carbon monoxide: it kills you without your knowing it. Pride aimed inward is overconfidence, an unrealistically high opinion of oneself. It causes us to be overconfident of our abilities, our beliefs, our power, and our moral standing before God and each other. Pride directed outward is self-exaltation. It drives us relentlessly to compare ourselves to others, to get and have more than others, to take credit for what is good, and to blame others when we fail. Ultimately, it is a passion to grasp for ourselves the place reserved for God Almighty. After three thousand years in the realms of theology and philosophy, this truth has re-emerged in the realm of science. For example, the Book of Proverbs (Solomon, ca. 1000 BC) stated that by nature we are self-justifying and feel morally superior:
    Every way of a man is right in his own eyes, But the Lord weighs the hearts.[10]
In January 2017, Scientific American reported: “Most people consider themselves to be morally superior.”[11] The article noted that “decades of research confirm that we are all above average—at least in our own minds…. above all else we believe that we are more just, more trustworthy, more moral than others.” In other words, according to the latest research, Solomon nailed it. We don’t just think we’re more virtuous. We think we’re smarter. And better. And very, very important. But we’ve only scratched the surface. Stay tuned for future installments. Subscribe to this blog to be notified of future posts, and share it with others! Key points:
  • God hates pride
  • Sinful pride is having too high an opinion of oneself
  • Everyone is proud in some aspect of life

  1. St. Augustine: https://biblehub.com/library/augustine/anti-pelagian_writings/chapter_33_xxix_not_every_sin.htm
  2. Hilton, http://www.ccel.org/ccel/hilton/ladder.ii_1.i.iii.v.ii.html
  3. Aquinas, https://biblehub.com/library/aquinas/summa_theologica/whether_pride_is_the_first.htm
  4. http://www.newadvent.org/summa/3162.htm
  5. Dorothy Sayers. The other six deadly sins. 1941/
  6. Proverbs 8:13
  7. Proverbs 16:5
  8. Proverbs 26:12
  9. Thoughts on the revival of religion in New England, Part IV Section I: Spiritual Pride. Jonathan Edwards, 1740
  10. Proverbs 21:2 ( NKJV )
  11. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/most-people-consider-themselves-to-be-morally-superior/

The Intelligence Trap: why smart people make dumb mistakes. David Robson, W. W. Norton, 2019

Western society reveres intelligence, or at least pretends to. A leading political figure boasts he's "a very stable genius” - which, presumably, is superior to an unstable one. Yet no one stops to ask, “does it matter?" According to this fresh and fascinating analysis from British science writer David Robson, probably not. In fact, it could be a liability.

Anecdotal examples abound of brilliant people who believe crazy things. Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of the ruthlessly logical Sherlock Holmes, clung to a naive but unshakeable faith in spiritualism and fairies. Nobel prize winner Kary Mullis recounts his abduction by a glowing alien raccoon, when not engaged promoting astrology and AIDS denialism. The name most synonymous with genius - Albert Einstein - saw the hope of mankind in Vladimir Lenin and frittered away the final decades of his life stubbornly rejecting quantum theory. The tendency of Nobel prize winners to go of the rails is so commonplace that science writers coined "Nobel disease" as a term of derision.

Among the lower ranks of intelligentsia, we learn that:

  • College graduates are more likely to believe in ESP and "psychic healing."
  • People with IQ's over 140 are more likely to max out on their credit.
  • High IQ individuals consume more alcohol and are more likely to smoke or take illegal drugs.

By way of explanation, research has found that highly intelligent and educated people are much more confident, and this confidence makes them less likely to doubt their opinions or change their minds. Rather than pursuing truth wherever it may be found, smarter people channel their energy toward arguing and reinforcing their preexisting opinions.

Is there hope for the genius? After reviewing current evidence and theories concerning human cognition, particularly the influence of emotions and effects of overconfidence, Robson identifies a series of empirically validated practices by which one can mature beyond mere intelligence to wisdom. These include:

  • Emotional awareness and regulation - learning to recognize when emotions influence opinions, and how to override them when necessary.
  • Cognitive reflection - the ability to question one's own intuitions and assumptions.
  • Actively open-minded thinking - allowing for other possibilities, and seriously considering opposing viewpoints.
  • Having a growth mindset - never resting on one's credentials but committing to a lifetime of learning and improvement.
  • Intellectual humility - accepting that one's knowledge and abilities are limited.

The third section of the book zeroes in on sound practices of learning and how principles like curiosity, conscientiousness, and emotional intelligence are at least as, if not more, important than intellectual intelligence. Robson relates a number of evidence-based practices shown to facilitate learning - material that should be of keen interest to teachers and learners alike.

A final section extends beyond the individual to apply these principles to group dynamics and the means of avoiding catastrophic group decisions.

This work should be of profound interest to Christians. Without ever quoting the Bible, Robson lays out an elegant model for the Biblical principle of wisdom. His explanations account for why both brilliant believers and brilliant skeptics are prone to overconfidence and equally capable of tremendous self-deceit.

In summary, David Robson has delivered a provocative, entertaining, and timely contribution to the public square. This book could serve as a life manual for those afflicted with a very high IQ. It should be an eye-opener for anyone whose life or profession concerns issues of intelligence. For the average person, it offers two benefits worth the price of the book. First, do not be intimidated by intelligence. Outside their own narrow area of expertise, geniuses are no more trustworthy than anyone else. Second, what matters is not intelligence, but wisdom. And wisdom is within reach of anyone. However, wisdom does not emerge from a vacuum. It matures over time through consistent practice of the principles described within.

Five stars. Buy or borrow it, read it, then live it. You will be much the wiser.

Review of the UK edition. The US edition will be released on August 6, 2019 by WW Norton.

 

 

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The Wrath of Cain

November 26, 2018 | pride | No Comments

Can you define envy? Is envy bad? Would you know if you had it?

The classic “seven deadly sins” were lust, gluttony, sloth, wrath, pride, greed, and envy. According to the proverb, “a sound heart is life to the body, but envy is rottenness to the bones.” Explain to me, if you can, the difference between greed and envy. In the off chance you haven’t studied Aristotle, this would seem a distinction without a difference. It sounds like counting the same sin twice. Yet there is a difference, and quite an important one. Greed is a desire for more but connotes no malice or resentment toward another. Envy is “to feel displeasure and ill-will at the superiority of another person in happiness, success, reputation, or the possession of anything desirable.” Envy requires at least one other person, who is the object of envy. It may be a desire for the possessions of another, or resentment over another’s success. It doesn’t even matter that the target actually is superior, only that he or she be perceived as such. Envy, as opposed to greed, requires comparison:

Greed: I want a new beach house.

Envy: I want your new beach house.

Greed: I want a new Ferrari.

Envy: She got a new Ferrari? I hope it crashes.

In the pursuit of greed, one might lie, cheat, injure, or steal from another; but those are means to an end. With envy, one-upmanship is the end. Perhaps now you can understand why the ancients considered envy second only to pride among the most serious vices. Cain harbored envy toward Abel. Envy put Jesus on the cross.

Envy is distinctly common. A 2016 study from Spain engaged 541 volunteers to participate in a series of game scenarios. The scenarios were designed so that volunteers would receive the largest payoff by cooperating with one another, but would suffer a penalty if they cooperated while their partner defected. Based on their performance, the participants were categorized into one of four types: optimist, pessimist, trustful, and envious. Almost one-third exhibited an envious disposition. They were more concerned with minimizing the payoff to their game partner, even when it reduced their own payoff.

The Pentateuch relates an account of hardcore envy leading to disastrous consequences. While wandering in the wilderness, Korah the Levite and Dathan, Abiram, and Oh from the tribe of Reuben accosted Moses. ““You’ve gone too far, because the entire community is holy, every last one of them, and the Lord is with them. Why then do you exalt yourselves above the Lord’s assembly?”

To put this in perspective, first Moses didn’t want the job, and second, he was the humblest man on the face of the earth. Korah demanded to be admitted to the priesthood, a role strictly limited to descendants of Moses’s brother Aaron. Moses explained it was up to God to decide who led, but his attempts at reconciliation were rebuffed. Korah and the rest of the “resistance” started to turn the people of Israel against Moses. The next day Moses gathered the people together, proclaiming:

“By this you will know that the Lord sent me to do these deeds and that it wasn’t my own desire. If all these people die a natural death, or if their fate be that of all humans, then the Lord hasn’t sent me. But if the Lord performs an act of creation, and the ground opens its mouth and swallows them and everything that belongs to them, so that they descend alive to their graves, then you’ll know that these men disrespected the Lord.”

Numbers 16:28-30, NKJV

As soon as he finished speaking these words, the ground under them split open. The earth opened its mouth and swallowed them and their households, including every human that belonged to Korah and all their possessions. They along with all their possessions descended alive to their graves, and the earth closed over them. They perished in the middle of the assembly.

The offense of Korah and his allies was envy. Getting swallowed up by the earth is pretty intense. Clearly, in the eyes of God this is a serious matter.

Envy has become a subject of interest among social psychologists in recent years. Traditionally it was regarded as a hostile emotion that prompts deception, limits cooperation, and rejoices over the failure of others. Some began to argue for the existence of “benign” envy, where someone attempts to reduce the difference with someone better through self-improvement. “Malicious” envy tries to level the field by taking down the other person.

A research paper from 2018 by Lange, Paulhus, and Crusius instead found that both types of envy were strongly associated with the “Dark Triad” of personality, particularly Machiavellianism and psychopathy. Both forms of envy cause psychological pain. According to the authors, the pain results from a feeling of inferiority. Inferiority then leads to depression, aggression, and anger toward the fortunate, and happiness when the other person fails. There was a difference in the severity of effect: “benign envy involves subtle social manipulation, whereas malicious envy can extend to blatant aggression.” We can apply this principle to explain the motive of Cain. Having been upstaged by his brother, he became angry, and the anger led to murder.

Recall that the definition of envy is to “feel displeasure” at the superiority of another. It may indeed lead to anger and aggression, but different people react in different ways. Displeasure can also mean discouragement, depression, and despair – and it’s still envy. If we feel resentment over the success of others, or experience disappointment when we compare ourselves, it is envy – just like Cain. We’re simply reacting in a different way because of our circumstances and disposition. The outward manifestation of pride is not always haughty and self-promoting. It may be deep inward pain, with little or no outward expression. The violent ones end up in jail. The depressed ones end up in therapy.