The Cognitive Bias of illusory Expertise

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I don’t put a lot of stock in what Psychologists say. It seems that Psychology is often just an attempt to describe human nature without acknowledging the existence of the sin nature.

Yet, if you’re like me, you have noticed that every once in a while, a psychologist comes out with an idea or an explanation that makes perfect sense but only because it is describing something that the Bible has already cataloged for us long ago. Even a broken clock is right twice a day.

I find this is often the case in the Book of Proverbs especially. Solomon wrote a lot of things that provide “Aha! moments” for us when it comes to learning how we “tick”, which is what it seems Psychologists are trying to find out. It makes one wonder why they don’t just study the Bible. Perhaps we already know the answer to that.

A while back when I recorded an episode of Reason Together, my cohost and I talked a little about a “Psychological phenomena” known as the “Dunning-Kreuger” effect.

In short, this effect is known as a cognitive bias of illusory superiority. In other words, it is the observation of the tendency of human beings to dramatically overestimate their knowledge and expertise of a subject. The basis of this personal illusion is in fact a lack of knowledge on the subject. Basically, one does not know how much they do not know and therefore can’t know how limited in scope their knowledge really is.

Articles on the subject tend to have titles like, “Why stupid people think they’re awesome.” You check out this video of a similar title, “Why Incompetent People Think They’re Amazing.”

In the podcast episode, we used this guy as a possible illustration of the effect in action.

However, from a recent personal study in Proverbs, I’ve been wondering where else this happens. After all, the studies on the effect have shown that it occurs in all types of people, from the super intelligent to the feeble minded. It also is not an effect that appears across someones entire character in each case. It sometimes occurs in a person on a specific subject to which the person has done some thinking but not enough.

Proverbs 13:10 “Only by pride cometh contention: but with the well advised is wisdom.”

This verse brought the Dunning-Kreuger effect to my mind because it often seems when we need wise counsel the most, we don’t think we do. Instead, we get offended when people offer the advice. It seems the effect, from a Biblical standpoint, is rooted in the sinful nature of humans, particularly the sin of pride.

The verse indicates that some do not receive advice because, by way of pride, they presume they are already an expert. Instead, the response you get from them is contention. They bristle at counsel because it means you’ve failed to recognize their expertise, or at least not in the way they wanted you to. Their cognitive bias defaults toward, “I’m already right, and I already have all the information I need, and I understand it”.

Yet, on the other hand, the well-advised end up wise because their thinking was biased toward not seeing themselves as an expert and instead in need of more information. They sought counsel.

It makes me wonder in what ways I’ve done this! I see two extreme responses to this.

1) I can be so fearful of the effect that I am unwilling to say, “Thus saith the Lord” like the Bible says it. This can lead to scriptural relativism and even a false, self-deprecating humility.

2) I go through life unaware of my own sinful tendency to presume my understanding is above average. This leads to me taking myself so seriously on some topics that I’m unwilling to ask myself, “Do I have all the information, and do I understand it rightly”?

I have known people in both scenarios, and if I’m honest, I must admit that there have been times in my life that I’ve demonstrated both extremes.

Since pastoring, I’ve seen people come and go over the last several years who considered themselves the sole remaining arbiters on planet earth regarding a particular Bible topic. Yet they couldn’t explain the topic. I had one family once say, “Pastor, we don’t think there is anyone else out there who is seeing what we’re seeing. That’s why there are no good churches left.”

Folks like this remind me of a quote my wife shared with me:

 “What he told me was what he saw, but what is it we see? Is it not often what we expect to see? Or imagine to see? He was frightened, so what part was reality and what part imagination?… The eyes see, the mind explains. But does the mind explain correctly? The mind only has what experience and education have given it, and perhaps that is not enough. Because one has seen does not mean one knows.” - Louis L’Amour, Jubal Sackett

Of course, that family was unwilling to ask, “What if we’re seeing it all wrong”? Needless to say, no church was ever “good enough” and they don’t go anywhere.

I’ve seen what may be the Dunning-Kreuger effect in pastors who take themselves so seriously they’d never dare say, “Correct me if I’m wrong” regarding a Biblical topic because, in their thinking, that question doesn’t seem to be one of the options. These are “party-line toters”. Remember, being a Berean Christian is not the same as being a skeptic. We should question things, but rightly. These men do not. They and their group then begin to see themselves as the last action-hero’s of the Christian world, and everyone is “against them” and so on. They’re suddenly “the real remnant”. They also tend sometimes (not always) to be the most outspoken.

Proverbs 14:16b “the fool rageth, and is confident.”

What seems so crazy about all of this is that this is a phenomenon that unregenerate, likely God-denying secularists have observed and studied. Some even seem willing to examine themselves for it. Yet, as Biblicists, we know that the Bible gave this a name long before Dunning and Kreuger thought of it -pride.

And so many of us seem unwilling to examine ourselves with honest examination to see if we’re affected.

1 Corinthians 8:1 “Knowledge puffeth up…”

This verse is sometimes used by preachers who are not studious to justify themselves and that shouldn’t be so. However, just because an ignorant preacher throws this verse around, does not negate its factualness.

The verse doesn’t mean knowledge is bad. In fact, based on a study through Proverbs we learn repeatedly that much knowledge is a good thing. Considering those teachings together, I think Paul was warning perhaps that a little knowledge puffeth up as opposed to a lot of knowledge which tends to make someone more careful about their pronunciations of expertise. This to me is further evidence of the Dunning-Kreuger effect being cataloged by the Bible long ago as simple pride.

The tendency with more knowledge is that people begin to take themselves less seriously, not more because they begin to see how big and important and sometimes nuanced the subject really is.

Proverbs 12:23 A prudent man concealeth knowledge: but the heart of fools proclaimeth foolishness

See Also, Proverbs 13:16 and 15:2

I came across a chart illustrating the Dunning-Kreuger effect and decided to make my own version of it to illustrate what I’ve seen as tendencies in us as sinful humans (see below). You can download the free .pdf here.

Trends in Wisdom Graph.jpg

The chart demonstrates that those with genuine confidence based in much knowledge will answer on a subject, but with a considered appreciation for all that the subject entails (see the final green dot).

Knowledgeable confidence is wisdom or savvy, but it tends to assert its own expertise less. And when it does, it does so with a particular attitude.

However, those with less knowledge tend to spike (read: puff up) in confidence, but it is not based in much knowledge. It’s based in the immediate, new-found excitement of understanding what the new idea is.

They then presume that the confidence is evidence of their knowledge and thus they never progress past the first green dot in knowledge. They stop asking questions and reasoning together and instead they avoid/refuse being questioned and insist you listen to them. Such empty confidence is pride. As a side note, this is why Paul warns that a newly saved man (a “novice”) should not be in ministry.

While it should be the Holy Spirit Who confirms in us when we are right about a thing, I fear that sometimes it is this false confidence that our pride then attributes to the Holy Spirit. That’s not good.

Many people have “felt right” about a thing only to change their mind over time as they learn Christ more. They only realize later that it was not the Spirit of God that gave them confidence of their rightness. It was something else.

Jeremiah 17:9 “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it”?

This subject deals with the heart of man in a very deep and epistemological way. And I believe that God is the only real expert on that.

Have you observed this effect in yourself or others? Comment below.