Are we all overconfident?

By Scott Hughes

Thinking, Fast and Slow book cover

We are overconfident in our beliefs. That’s my one-sentence summary from Thinking, Fast and Slow. By beliefs, I am not referring exclusively to religious beliefs. I mean everything down to our everyday, mundane beliefs. Psychologist Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel Prize winner in Economics, reveals many reasons why we should hold our beliefs with humility.

From the moment of our birth, we are trying to make sense of the world around us. An oversimplified definition of education could be helping others to make connections. Discipleship, similarly oversimplified, is connecting who God is, who we are called to be, with how we live. Making sense of our world is hard work, and we are not innately great at it.

Here’s one embarrassing example. Like many people, I feel I am an above-average driver. (Kahneman notes that most people believe themselves better than average, but by definition “most” can’t be better than average!) Like most beginning drivers, I hit the brake too hard and slammed the gas pedal down to make for an embarrassingly jerky ride. When my first lesson ended, I noticed that with the car turned off and the key still in the ignition, the brake lights were still illuminated. “Neat,” I exclaimed in a flash of insight, “the brake pedal has a sensor detecting my foot is still on the brake pedal!” My father just looked at me, dumbfounded. It took only a couple of minutes (yes, I am that slow) for me to figure out the brake lights were triggered simply by the pedal being engaged, not by a sensor on the pedal detecting my shoe!

There are a number of reasons we often jump to faulty conclusions. One reason — Kahneman refers to this as the narrative fallacy — is that our brains were designed to make experiences fit our perception of reality. So to a geeky teenager who overthinks and likes technology, I made the car’s mechanics fit my thinking. Engaging our brains at a deeper level is difficult. We snap to judgments and draw conclusions when we would be better served to question our assumptions. Kahneman observes, “The amount of evidence and its quality do not count for much, because poor evidence can make a very good story. For some of our most important beliefs we have no evidence at all, except that people we love and trust hold these beliefs.”1

We, too often, make judgments and rush to conclusions with little evidence or with misinformation. Kahneman asserts, “It is the consistency of the information that matters for a good story, not its completeness. Indeed, you will often find that knowing little makes it easier to fit everything you know into a coherent pattern.”2 My first application was what I see politicians often do in debates. But more applicable is being aware of my own ignorance and rushes to judgment. A memorable acronym that Kahneman gives is WYSIATI, which stands for What You See Is All There Is. Kahneman puts this even more starkly, “Paradoxically, it is easier to construct a coherent story when you know little, when there are fewer pieces to fit into the puzzle. Our comforting conviction that the world makes sense rests on a secure foundation: our almost unlimited ability to ignore our ignorance.”3

There are many other dynamics that can bias our thinking that Kahneman points out, such as the halo effect and outcome bias, which should give us hesitancy and humility. As insightful and revealing as Kahneman’s work is, my biggest takeaway is that this book should not be as illuminating as it is. As Christians, we should be embodying the humility promoted by Kahneman. The Barna Group and others reveal that people perceive Christians to be judgmental. It is easy to name Westboro Baptist folks or others as judgmental without noticing our own innate tendencies. While passion and conviction are important, unchecked, they can lead to snap judgments and arrogance. Paul admonished that “now we see in a mirror dimly.” James commanded we “be quick to hear, slow to speak.” Jesus cautioned about judging to “take the log out of our eye first.”

In order to engage in a Courageous Conversation, we need to do the hard work of examining our assumptions as well as the quantity and quality of the evidence we have for our positions. Perhaps, then, the perception of Christians might be that we are people of humility and love.

Reflection Question for Individuals:

  • How could you be more intentional about holding your opinions with humility?
  • What are your core convictions? What are mere opinions?

Reflection Question for Church Leaders:

  • How do you create environments brave enough that church leaders can name and question their assumptions?
  • How do we as leaders help church members distinguish between Christian convictions and individual opinions?

Learn more about Courageous Conversations »

1 Daniel Kahneman Thinking, Fast and Slow. (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2013), 209.

2 Ibid, 87.

3 Ibid, 207.