Walls of Pride Must Fall

Speaker: Rev. Taryn Strauss

Service Times: 9:30 am & 11:00 am

On the cusp of a new year and new decade, may we collectively and individually offer up a prayer to deepen self-insight.  How can our faith practice protect us from illusory superiority? We will explore the Dunning-Kruger Effect on our psyche, and dismantle the walls we have erected to protect us from knowing ourselves fully.

Sermon Text:

They say most adults can only maintain attention to one topic for twelve minutes, and I tend to keep my clearest insights for the end, so today I’ll just spoil the whole thing with the three words you can use to break down walls in 2020.

Help Me Understand.

You’ve been there before. You are at a holiday dinner with extended family. An older uncle or grandfather is explaining to everyone that the impeachment trial is a sham trial, and the news is really not to be trusted. The real conspiracy, he explains, is the liberal conspiracy and the way all the major journalists and news networks are part of that plan to disrupt this presidency. Who were you at the table? Were you the wife, trying to keep everyone happy, hush your husband and not talk politics at the family dinner table?
Were you the daughter, rolling her eyes in silence that you’ve adapted to, since there’s no point in arguing? Are you the son, who wants to stay in your dad’s good graces?

Perhaps, you are the one explaining to everyone else the way things are. Perhaps the topic is completely different, or the audience is different, and you are the one hearing yourself talk, and just telling it like it is.

How do we know when we don’t know?

I have a prayer I offer from time to time, especially these days: please keep me surrounded by thought partners and friends who will protect me from my own obsolescence, or my own ignorance. Surround me with people who will call me out when I am wrong. May I be open and flexible in my perspective. In these times, this is a worthy prayer for our own resilience.

In 1999, Cornell University psychologist David Dunning and Justin Kruger published a paper based on their studies of cognitive bias- a tendency for people, across ages, cultures, and socieconomic classes to wrongly overestimate their knowledge or ability in a particular area.

The researchers attributed the trend to a problem of metacognition—the ability to analyze one’s own thoughts or performance. “Those with limited knowledge in a domain suffer a dual burden: Not only do they reach mistaken conclusions and make regrettable errors, but their incompetence robs them of the ability to realize it,” they wrote.
And the effect isn’t spotted only among incompetent individuals; most people have weak points where the bias can take hold. It also applies to people with a seemingly solid knowledge base.
This tendency may occur because gaining a small amount of knowledge in an area about which one was previously ignorant can make them feel as though they’re suddenly experts. Only after continuing to explore a topic do people often realize how extensive it is and how much they still have to master.
The problem is, ignorance feels a lot like knowledge. It does feel like we have left the golden age of information and have entered the trash heap/dumpster age of information. In this moment of 140 characters and newsfeeds and ticker tape scrolling at the bottom of a screen, 80% of news readers never make it past the headline. Only two out of ten readers will read the article. Our inflated confidence is literally killing newspapers and threatens the future of journalism as we know it.

The problem with watching the Jimmy Kimmel clip, is that while it’s funny to laugh at people’s overconfidence and ultimate ignorance, the Dunning-Kruger effect implicates us all. Every single one of us can relate to passionately making a claim, while resisting deeper awareness, or being told later we were not on the right track at all. Even then, the first response to wash over us is typically disbelief. Not to get too meta, but even now, as I share this with you, there’s a lot I don’t know about the Dunning-Kruger effect. At least I’m not aware of it!

I always thought one of the greatest gifts of the Obama presidency was his language around gay marriage, do you remember that? He said to the American people, “I have evolved on this issue.”
That a brilliant, Harvard-educated world leader could admit to changing his position because of deeper awareness, new understanding, and new knowledge, is still an inspiration to me as a leader now.

To have the ego strength and spiritual fortitude to admit he was wrong and he is capable of learning. This humility and strength in leadership offers us a way to overcome the Dunning-Kruger effect in our lives.
In my own life experience, while I was raised with a strong sense of anti-racism and human rights, I did not always understand queer theory, the gender spectrum and the ways society has constructed gender that does not reflect people’s natural experiences of their bodies and their gender. I remember, many years ago, rolling my eyes at a UU conference when I was asked to write my pronouns on a nametag. Isn’t it obvious? I thought. I thought I knew all there was to know about gender. As it turns out, I had so much more to learn.
Luckily, for me, I had friends who were willing to share their experiences with me. I had people who freed me from my own ignorance by sharing their stories of their gender and how writing my own gender pronouns on my nametag liberated us all from making incorrect assumptions about people, even freed us from imagining that we should always be able to discern a person’s gender identity just by looking at them. This is quite an ignorant mistake.

With humility and self-awareness, and three simple words, “help me understand,” I could take that step towards learning what I didn’t know I didn’t know. I am still no expert on this subject, but the greater wisdom is admitting how much I still have to learn.

As Unitarian Universalists, people without a creed or an established version of “truth,” shouldn’t holy curiosity be one of our greatest virtues?
Sadly, pride gets in our way.

So what can you do to gain a more realistic assessment of your own abilities in a particular area if you are not sure you can trust your own self-assessment?
Keep learning and practicing. Instead of assuming you know all there is to know about a subject, keep digging deeper. Once you gain greater knowledge of a topic, the more likely you are to recognize how much there is still to learn. This can combat the tendency to assume you’re an expert, even if you’re not.

Ask other people how you’re doing. Another effective strategy involves asking others for constructive criticism. While it can sometimes be difficult to hear, such feedback can provide valuable insights into how others perceive your abilities.

Question what you know. Even as you learn more and get feedback, it can be easy to only pay attention to things that confirm what you think you already know. This is an example of another type of psychological bias known as the confirmation bias. In order to minimize this tendency, keep challenging your beliefs and expectations. Seek out information that challenges your ideas.
It takes a strong ego to question what you know, and to seek out people and information that challenges your long-held ideas and beliefs.
My grandfather, a great patriarch, never graduated high school, and you could not tell him anything. He was outspoken with his ideas and opinions on all subjects. He regularly made fun of my parents for the money they wasted on higher education. He won every argument either through intimidation or cruel jokes at others’ expense. The result of his lifelong commitment to his own cognitive bias was loneliness and the loss of his family.

We moved away, and then we moved farther still, and I didn’t see him much at all in the last ten years of his life. In his isolation, his ego was protected, but at what cost? It’s generational, this Dunning-Kruger effect.
Even I have to check myself, when someone tells me something new, I don’t counter with, “right, I know,” which is my knee-jerk reaction.
Institutions and organizations can suffer from the Dunning-Kruger effect. Politicians manipulate this and use it to their advantage. By keeping their voters ignorant yet prideful, they reward their lack of knowledge with divisive statements that can make their constituents feel superior.

Liberal organizations including Unitarian Universalism have been deconstructing their own long-held biases and beliefs, working to understand the ways, as an institution and a structure it has maintained some of the premises of the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. It is working to free itself from its own cognitive bias, it’s own cultural norms, and to establish new norms based on new self-awareness.
Institutionally, as it is personally, this is a very painful process. This requires compassion, humility, and expressions of love and care for one another even as we call each other to change and evolve.
The ego resilience required to address our confirmation bias is a very tall order. To practice radical humility requires deep self-love, with a dash of humor at oneself.

First, you have to offer love and care for the child inside yourself who was perhaps demeaned, who was bullied, who was told you would never measure up. Who was told you were too stupid to comprehend something. You have to care for, and tend to that child who was abused, or scared, made to feel unsafe and unprotected. The first step it to break down the walls that child inside has constructed for his or her own safety, and then care for her.
Then, it’s time to address those adults who were priests, teachers, parents, school principles, neighbors, who did not protect that child. Who left the child in you so exposed, you had to build some walls around yourself. Once those walls were built, you could find ways to make others feel stupid, or just inferior. Anything that threatened you could be chalked up to being “wrong.” Whatever you don’t understand is now someone else’s problem, and not your own. And that’s how you became protected from that which you did not know, and could not understand.

The Chinese philosopher Confucius once said, “To know what you know and what you do not know, that is true knowledge.”

There’s some truth to this: the corollary to the Dunning-Kruger Effect is that people who really are experts in their fields tend to be much more humble about what they actually know and are open to correction when they are wrong. Maybe the prerequisite to being able to learn is to know how much we don’t know, to learn to listen much more than we talk.

To tear down these walls we have constructed within ourselves that keep us from humility and connected and learning, we must disrupt our own thought patterns. We must love our inner child, and love ourselves enough to change our own inner narrative, insisting that we already know someone else’s experience and instead say, “I didn’t know that. Help me understand.”

Holy Mystery, may we love ourselves enough to always keep learning and growing. May we love each other to hold each other accountable to high wisdom and deeper understanding. May we protect each other from illusory superiority when it reveals itself. May we renew our commitment each day to practice radical humility and sacred awe for all we do not yet know. May we speak the mantra to ourselves and each other, “help me understand.”