The Psychology of Self-Deception

It’s one thing to be clueless. But have you ever known someone who was clueless about being clueless?

Maybe she saw herself as a great cook, but anybody who tasted her food would strongly object.

Maybe they figured they were the picture of health—despite what their friends (and doctors) kept saying about their diet and exercise (or lack thereof!).

Or perhaps he considered himself a fine handyman who never had to call the professionals—until he’d created a much more expensive problem than he originally had.

In another post I wrote about the New Testament’s strong warning not to let ourselves be fooled. In Hebrews 3:7-4:13 the pastor-author warns his beloved friends that, like the ancient Israelites, they too would fall short of receiving God’s promise of a secure resting place without each other’s help and encouragement. Here are the key verses:

See to it, brothers, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God.  But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today, so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness.

—Hebrews 3:12-13

I’ve taught about the critical importance of the church in many contexts. I’ve used many different examples from Scripture and modern life to illustrate what the Bible’s saying. Like any teacher, I have a couple favorites. But as of today, they were all relegated to secondary status. You see, today I discovered the Dunning-Kruger effect.

For those (like me) who had no idea what the Dunning-Kruger effect is, here’s the briefest of explanations: a pair of researchers at Cornell University studied and described the phenomenon of highly incompetent individuals believing that they were, in fact, above-average at a given task. The researchers’ interest was inspired by the story of a man who was arrested after robbing two banks. The man was quickly apprehended because he had intentionally not worn a mask, only to have his face caught on security cameras. Why make such a huge mistake? Because the robber sincerely believed that rubbing lemon juice on his face would prevent the cameras inside the bank from recording any images of himself. When presented with the video evidence against him, he could only respond in disbelief: “But I used the juice!” This poor man’s mistake wasn’t that he was dumb; it was that he was dumb but truly considered himself to be clever. In other words: he was clueless about being clueless.

The researchers at Cornell found that this kind of behavior isn’t a disorder that’s unique to America’s dumbest criminals. In fact, all of us can have this cognitive bias. They convincingly showed that, in many cases, when incompetent people are asked how good they are at something, they don’t just fail to see their incompetency—they tend to think they’re absolutely great at it! The delusion is so powerful that, when another person performs the same task much better than they do, the incompetent person still can’t recognize the other person’s superior skill. It turns out that the worse we are at something, the more our deluded self-perception drives us to think we’re awesome at it. In fact, one of the researchers was saddened to realize that, no matter how inaccurate our view of ourselves is, we’re trapped in it. In order to see the truth about our lack of skill and self-delusion, we need someone else to point it out to us—and even then we might not see it. 1

I hope some of the applications of the Dunning-Kruger effect to our lives as Christians are clear:

  • It’s no coincidence that, before Paul instructs the Roman church in how to use their spiritual gifts, he first warns them, “Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment” (Romans 12:3). He has to throw in that warning because it’s far too easy for us to do just that: think too highly of ourselves!
  • How amazingly well these findings line up with Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount! As he told the earliest disciples, it’s much easier to see the minor flaws of others while overlooking our own massive failings (Matthew 7:1-5). Be careful about judging others: it’s a lot easier to be a hypocrite than to be a helper!
  • Notice what a scary position we find ourselves in a self-deceived sinners. We think we’re good, decent people. We sincerely believe we’re not as bad as the people God condemns throughout the Bible. We somehow trick ourselves into thinking that other people sin while we only “make mistakes” or occasionally “do things that are out of character.” On the contrary! Despite what we naturally believe, we are our own worst enemies. We can’t even grade ourselves accurately! How true, then, is the consistent message of both the Old and New Testaments: “There is no one righteous, not even one” (Romans 3:10).

If all that is true, and we can’t even know how bad we are—let alone fix ourselves—what can we possibly do? Three thousand years before the Cornell researchers came to the same conclusion, God himself gave the answer: our only hope is to stop trusting our own understanding and to put all our chips on God’s word being true (Proverbs 3:5-6). We need—and we have—a Savior who sees us for who we are but isn’t ashamed to love us anyway (Hebrews 11:16). What self-deceived, blind, ignorant sinners need isn’t more information or (God forbid) more affirmation that we’re okay. We need someone to give us the gift of faith and make us believe the truth despite ourselves. And that’s exactly what the good news of Jesus does for us (Ephesians 2:8-9).

And what else does the good news of Jesus do? It doesn’t just create a relationship with a God who sees us perfectly and teaches us how to see ourselves through his word; it creates a global community of others to help us. The ultimate solution to the Dunning-Kruger effect isn’t becoming more mindful or self-aware; it’s choosing to be vulnerable and let others know us really well. It’s taking off our armor and handing other Christians a sword, knowing they can either defend us or run us through. God’s solution to our self-deception isn’t only giving us spiritual life from the dead—it’s the church.

Are you experiencing the encouragement of Hebrews 3:12-13? Are you practicing it yourself?

  1.  “Ignorance for Dummies,” This American Life 585. Accessed 25 April, 2016.
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