With a contentious Kentucky gubernatorial election just around the corner and the national Democratic primaries not far behind, it’s helpful to consider a study published last year in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology and reported by various news outlets.
Two scholars from the University of Michigan found that people who were the most confident they possessed superior knowledge about several political issues actually displayed the biggest gaps between what they thought was true and the empirical facts.
The self-appointed superior folks were also less likely to seek out information that might contradict their mistaken beliefs.
In my un-academic takeaway, the study demonstrated yet again that the surer you are that you’re absolutely right, the greater the likelihood that you are, and will remain, ignorant. There’s even a name for this in psychology: the Dunning-Kruger Effect, in which people are ignorant of their own ignorance.
And that’s not just true for politics, I’m guessing. It’s the case with religion, business, interpersonal relationships, you name it.
The more you think you know, the less you usually do. Understanding starts when you realize how little you understand. Then you’re in a position to learn something.
St. Paul talked about this nearly 2,000 years ago, many centuries before anyone was formally studying social psychology.
Writing to a congregation in Corinth that was overly impressed by its own profound spiritual enlightenment, Paul chastised them.
“If any of you think you are wise in this age, you must become foolish, so that you may become wise,” Paul wrote. “For the wisdom of this world is foolishness before God. … The Lord knows the reasonings of the wise, that they are useless.”
In another section of the same letter, he said, “We all possess knowledge. But knowledge puffs up, while love builds up. Those who think they know something do not yet know as they ought to know. But whoever loves God is known by God.”
Bottom line: you’re not nearly as enlightened as you think you are. You have no basis for arrogance, and every reason for humility. Relinquish your pride. Instead, simply love God and your humans.
In the throes of a Civil War, Abraham Lincoln expressed a similar idea.
His second inaugural address pointed out that, after nearly four years of bloodshed, both the Union and the Confederacy held firm in their respective convictions that they were fighting a righteous war in which they were the good guys and the other side heretical.
“Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other,” Lincoln observed. “It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces; but let us judge not that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully.”
Lincoln himself couldn’t discern God’s will in the war. To him, God was mysterious and his judgments largely unknowable. Of course we now consider him a genius.
Even when we think we’ve seen a truth so obvious no one but a fool could miss it — and even when we’re occasionally correct — we’re always subject to the law of unintended consequences, in which our solution may itself bring about horrible results.
After the Titanic sank in 1912 and about 1,500 people died, it became clear the death toll would have been lower had the ship been equipped with an adequate number of lifeboats.
The United States passed a law stipulating that all large American ships must carry enough lifeboats for every passenger aboard.
In 1915, the S.S. Eastland, a poorly designed tour boat that already was top-heavy, capsized in the Chicago River after additional lifeboats were stacked on her upper deck in accordance with the new law.
Some 844 people drowned in that accident — caused by the weight of the very lifeboats meant to avert a disaster.
In other words, lawmakers really did understand the problem that had led to great loss of life on the Titanic. They agreed on a seemingly wise solution. But they didn’t foresee their solution’s unintended consequences for those victims in Illinois.
Even when they were right, they were wrong.
None of this is to imply that we shouldn’t hold dearly our political or religious or economic or social beliefs. None of this is to imply that we can’t prefer one candidate over another or one party over another, or for that matter one God over another.
But it does mean that the starting point for all debates should be self-awareness. We should recognize clearly our own fallibility, our inability to know the hearts of our opponents or even to know own hearts, much less to predict the future.
We should admit that most big issues, and for that matter most small people, are endlessly complex and nuanced and murky.
We should remember that even on the rare occasion when we’re absolutely right, our hopeful solutions might lead to disastrous results.
We should always remember our need to listen, to learn — and to love even our adversaries.