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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.



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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Late in life, atheist philosopher Bertrand Russell received this challenge: if, after death, he found himself face to face with God, what would he say? Russell replied, “I probably would ask, ‘Sir, why did you not give me better evidence?’”¹

Theists contend that though evidence for God is both present and sufficient, bias can fog even brilliant minds like Russell’s. It’s possible that bias could explain Russell’s atheism, but is the accusation of bias merely an ad hominem counter argument? We often assume that human beliefs arise from the application of reason to facts and experience; that we are, in effect, Homo rationalis (rational man). If Russell were objectively rational after considering all the evidence, then his defense is valid. His unbelief would signify failure on God’s part.

Homo rationalis is widely embraced and resonates with our self-perception. We always think our own beliefs are based on facts, reason, and experience.

Social scientists in the 1970s broadly accepted two ideas about human nature. First, people are generally rational, and their thinking is normally sound. Second, emotions such as fear, affection, and hatred explain most of the occasions on which people depart from rationality.²

However, the Christian Scriptures reject the doctrine of Homo rationalis, instead predicting that people would refuse to believe in the face of overwhelming evidence. In a parable recorded in Luke 16, Jesus says, “If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rise from the dead.” And in Romans 1:21, Paul writes, “Because, although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened.”

In recent decades, researchers from a range of disciplines have investigated the nature of human belief. The results of this research enable us to test which is more correct, Homo rationalis or the biblical perspective.

Finding #1: Relying on Heuristics

Humans routinely sift through mountains of information to make even simple decisions. Ideally, a person one would take accurate, complete data and apply reason to reach a logical and correct conclusion. Reality is not so cooperative; we often lack both time and desire for exhaustive analysis, even if perfect information were available. Instead, we make the best possible decisions based on imperfect, incomplete data.

Heuristics are those mental shortcuts people use for deciding as efficiently as possible given the information on hand. We all use them, several times a day. Heuristics are quite helpful, actually. If you encounter a shadowy figure in a dark alley with something shaped like a gun in his hand, the “representativeness” heuristic would recommend avoidance. Logic would be useless until you determined beyond all doubt that (1) yes, it was a gun, and (2) the bearer had malicious intent—which could be too late.

Unfortunately, heuristics are often wrong and used as a substitute for thoughtful reflection. In his book Thinking Fast and Slow, renowned psychologist Daniel Kahneman offers a comprehensive portrayal of how our minds work and how an expanding catalog of cognitive biases and faulty heuristics routinely and predictably lead us astray. Heuristics are automatic, quick, and effortless. Kahneman labels this “System 1” thinking. Thoughtful reflection (“System 2” thinking) yields better decisions at the cost of time and effort. What Kahneman and his collaborators found was that our minds are naturally lazy so we rely on System 1 as much as possible: “System 1 is gullible and biased to believe, System 2 is in charge of doubting and unbelieving, but System 2 is sometimes busy, and often lazy.”³

Cognitive biases are tendencies deeply embedded in our subconscious that lead us to err in predictable ways. Almost two hundred have been described in the literature. Many serve to enhance our own self-image or minimize emotional tension. For example, confirmation bias is the tendency to assign greater significance to evidence that supports our preexisting opinion. Heuristics and biases are closely intertwined. One way to understand the connection is that heuristics represent a shortcut to decision making, but are neutral regarding outcome. Biases push those decisions in certain (somewhat) predictable directions. Having invested a lifetime researching heuristics and biases, Kahneman concluded that “the human mind is not bound to reality.”4

Finding #2: Emotional Influences

It would be a sorry state of affairs if we regarded tragedy and suffering with cold indifference. But to what extent do emotions determine our beliefs? Is it merely an occasional exception or do emotions undermine the validity of Homo rationalis? In recent decades, a clear picture has emerged. It began with the observation that patients with specific brain injuries lost all capacity for emotion. The surprising consequence, though, was that such patients also lost the ability to make decisions. They could analyze a problem all day long without ever forming a conclusion. Dr. Antoine Bechara summarized the outcome of this research in 2004: 5

“The studies of decision-making in neurological patients who can no longer process emotional information normally suggest that people make judgments not only by evaluating the consequences and their probability of occurring, but also and even sometimes primarily at a gut or emotional level.” (emphasis added)

Now, this is far from saying that every decision is purely or primarily emotional nor that emotions inevitably lead to flawed conclusions. But when it comes to objective analysis or honest truth-seeking, emotions may not merely impede our progress; they can propel us right off the cliff. Consider the emotional fervor over certain political, social, religious, and even scientific issues. It is easy to believe the issues inflame our passion; more often it is our passions that inflame the issue. Despite the evidence, few will admit to thinking emotionally rather than logically. Most likely we don’t even know we’re doing it.

In 2015, Jennifer Lerner of Harvard University reviewed 35 years of research on the role of emotions in judgment and decision making:6

“The research reveals that emotions constitute potent, pervasive, predictable, sometimes harmful and sometimes beneficial drivers of decision making. Across different domains, important regularities appear in the mechanisms through which emotions influence judgments and choices.”

Finding #3: Social influences

If Homo rationalis existed, then we could completely trust expert opinions. But there are two obvious problems. First, experts often disagree. Second, recent history shows that experts sometimes fail spectacularly. The bandwagon effect inclines people to conform their opinions to the perceived majority position. This may occur either to enhance one’s own conformity and social acceptance, or because one sincerely (perhaps naively) trusts the wisdom of the majority.

When formulating an opinion on a complex subject, rarely do people rely on their own analysis. For example, on initial consideration, Professor B may consider Professor A’s opinion. The opinion of Professor A will be treated as additional data, sometimes prompting Professor B to reach the opposite conclusion from what he might have reached independently. Professor C then comes along and, rather than seeing disagreement between Professors A and B, she sees unanimity. If she trusts her colleagues, the inclination toward agreement becomes ever greater. This is the mechanism by which information cascades develop. In an information cascade, the early deciders have a disproportionate impact over equally qualified experts who arrive later. When a cascade has occurred, the majority viewpoint of 100 experts may be completely opposite to the opinion of the same 100 experts analyzing the data independently, blinded to the opinions of their colleagues.

Finding #4: Intelligence and Religiosity

There is no evidence that more intelligent or better educated individuals transcend their own emotions and biases or are less susceptible to peer pressure. In Kahneman’s collaborative research, it didn’t matter whether the subjects were average high school students or Ivy League undergrads. Highly intelligent and educated people are more confident,7 making 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.8

Belief Formation Research Supports Scripture

While Bertrand Russell, and many others, may attribute unbelief to lack of evidence, the Bible declares that belief is a choice. Research on human decision making has demonstrated that we are heavily influenced by nonrational factors that can lead to faulty decisions and incorrect belief (or unbelief). It seems the Bible’s view is well supported. To paraphrase Solzhenitsyn, the dividing line between fact and fancy cuts through the mind of every person, believer and skeptic alike.

(Jointly posted at Reasons to Believe on June 14, 2019

Endnotes
  1. Leo Rosten, “Bertrand Russell and God: A Memoir,” The Saturday Review, February 23, 1974, 26.
  2. Daniel Kahneman, Thinking Fast and Slow (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2011), 8.
  3. Kahneman, Thinking Fast and Slow, 81.
  4. Kahneman, Thinking Fast and Slow, 365.
  5. Antoine Bechara, “The Role of Emotion in Decision-Making: Evidence from Neurological Patients with Orbitofrontal Damage,” Brain and Cognition 55, no. 1 (June 2004): 30–40, doi:10.1016/j.bandc.2003.04.001.
  6. Jennifer Lerner et al., “Emotion and Decision Making,” Annual Review of Psychology 66 (January 2015): 799–823, doi:10.1146/annurev-psych-010213-115043.
  7. David G. Robson, The Intelligence Trap: Why Smart People Make Dumb Mistakes (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2019).
  8. Dan M. Kahan, , “Ideology, Motivated Reasoning, and Cognitive Reflection: An Experimental Study,” Judgment and Decision Making 8, no. 4 (July 2013): 407–24.

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 yournew beach house.
__
Greed: I want a new Ferrari.
Envy: She bought 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.”
 
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 as much as 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.

Most of us think we are better than most of us. As a consequence, we are sometimes tempted to advertise our moral superiority through public expression. This is known as “moral grandstanding”. There’s nothing wrong with issuing public moral pronouncements; it’s not merely a right, but sometimes a duty. The issue here is motive. It is grandstanding when the main motive is to flaunt our virtue. (With human behavior, usually more than one motive is in play).

One of the many drawbacks of moral grandstanding is that it can lead to “ramping up.” If a conversation partner makes a moral statement that is equally virtuous to our own position, pride may push us to a more extreme position in order to maintain our own moral superiority. Ramping up is one of many prideful behaviors that contribute to extreme polarization on issues.

Both moral grandstanding and ramping up are pervasive in social and political spheres. It is often referred to as “virtue signalling” but that expression is a misnomer with a life of its own. This is not an invitation to point fingers. When we accuse specific people of moral grandstanding, we cross a line. We can’t know the sincerity of their motive. It’s like accusing a person of lying, when for all we know they may actually believe what they’re saying. In the broader social context though, we can identify it, criticize it, ignore it, but especially avoid doing it.

Naturally, being the spiritual people we are, none of us would stoop to moral grandstanding, would we? Christians wouldn’t try to outdo one another in their spirituality, would they?

The “Dilbert” comic strip by Scott Adams features an intermittent character named “Topper”. Topper has a single distinguishing trait: whenever any other character makes a statement in his presence, he must counter with a competing claim that is more impressive. It’s always something outrageous, or it wouldn’t be funny. But the point of satire is to poke fun at things real people do. Have you ever played Christian Topper? It goes like this:

Sam: How was your trip?

Loretta: What a blessing! We were in Haiti for two weeks.

Topper: I spent 37 years in Borneo living off grass and beetles!

Loretta: We did get a stomach bug. I lost 3 pounds.

Topper: I survived malaria, dengue fever, Zika, and Ebola!

Loretta: But we prayed for a quick recovery and were soon back on our feet.

Topper: I was eaten by cannibals and prayed my way back to life!

Or closer to home:

Bob: We watched “Harry Potter” last night and had a good conversation with our kids this morning about the themes of courage and sacrifice.

Leah: We won’t let our kids watch “Harry Potter”. Didn’t you know that because of those stories millions of Christian kids turned to Satanism?

Topper: I’ve never watched a movie my entire life! In fact, I walk everywhere with my eyes shut so I can’t even see an advertisement!

Now, most Christians who eschewed the Harry Potter franchise probably were quite sincere in their belief that it was harmful (even if a disturbing number fell for the hoax about witchcraft and Satanism, mistaking parody for fact). Making a public display over it is more problematic. Moral grandstanding comes so naturally to us, it can be unconscious and quite unintentional.

Christians play this game even with the Bible. At one extreme some compete to see how simplistically they can interpret it without hitting 10 on the nuttiness scale. (Snakes, anyone?) At the other extreme they compete to see how much of the Bible they can jettison and still pretend to be Christian. It’s hard to grandstand from inside the mainstream where no one notices or pays much attention to you. Unfortunately, if enough people jump in, the ramping up effect can either move the mainstream, split it, or (usually) both.

Jesus knew moral grandstanding when he saw it, and warned his disciples:

“Take heed that you do not do your charitable deeds before men, to be seen by them. Otherwise you have no reward from your Father in heaven. Therefore, when you do a charitable deed, do not sound a trumpet before you as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory from men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But when you do a charitable deed, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, that your charitable deed may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will Himself reward you openly.” (Matthew 6:1-4, NKJV)

We play Christian Topper with an endless list of theological and moral issues, but it’s a poor Christian witness. Better we follow the admonition of our Lord and let our character speak – softly:

“Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16 NKJV).

Excerpted from the upcoming book “Superbia” by Steven Willing, MD