Monday, August 22, 2011

HT You Are Not So Smart: The Illusion of Asymmetric Insight

The illusion of asymmetric insight makes it seem as though you know everyone else far better than they know you, and not only that, but you know them better than they know themselves. You believe the same thing about groups of which you are a member. As a whole, your group understands outsiders better than outsiders understand your group, and you understand the group better than its members know the group to which they belong.

The researchers explained this is how one eventually arrives at the illusion of naive realism, or believing your thoughts and perceptions are true, accurate and correct, therefore if someone sees things differently than you or disagrees with you in some way it is the result of a bias or an influence or a shortcoming. You feel like the other person must have been tainted in some way, otherwise they would see the world the way you do – the right way. The illusion of asymmetrical insight clouds your ability to see the people you disagree with as nuanced and complex. You tend see your self and the groups you belong to in shades of gray, but others and their groups as solid and defined primary colors lacking nuance or complexity.

... So, you pick a team, and like the boys at Robber’s Cave, you spend a lot of time a lot of time talking about how dumb and uncouth the other side is. You too can become preoccupied with defining the essence of your enemies. You too need the other side to be inferior, so you define them as such. You start to believe your persona is actually your identity, and the identity of your enemy is actually their persona. You see yourself in a game of self-deluded poker and assume you are impossible to read while everyone else has obvious tells.

Earlier this year I wrote about false prophets and mental illness. Well, this entry could be considered a continuation of those thoughts. This entry can also be considered a tangential examination of watchbloggers for and against religious institutions. Ex-Christians and atheists imagine they know Christians better than Christians know themselves in the same way Christians imagine they know atheists and ex-Christians better than they know themselves. You know the drill. Did someone walk away from the faith? Well, of course they only did so because they wanted to keep sinning. The idea that they lost faith in Christ and then decided that because they lost that faith there was no point in using the same moral compass can't be considered. Non-Christians can look at Christians and surmise that culture and upbringing alone account for why someone would believe something as crazy as that religion without letting the shoe be on the other foot, there is nothing more inherently rational or more humane in a secular upbringing, either.

It should probably go without saying a false prophet (or even a real one I guess) can operate with the assumption of asymmetric insight. A person who imagines he/she has the gift of discernment can read the tea leaves, read the emails, read the blogs, read non-verbal cues, and all that. He or she is positive he or she has penetrated beyond the veil into things as they are. This lets a person imagine that someone she doesn't really know must be, against all evidence, someone other than who that person is. Maybe he went to college. Well, in the mind of the prophet that college degree must be a sham. Maybe the person has never actually dated anyone. Well, in the mind of the self-appointed prophet there's a significant other.

Of course the would be prophet might be obtaining ideas from outside sources whilst thinking he or she is sui generis or getting divine oracles. Maybe there's some pastor or famous preacher type who says "I see things" and that clicks in the mind and heart of some emotionally and mentally unstable person who retroactively ascribes to themselves insights and ideas they did not necessarily have. I'm the sort of glum type who imagines such a mentally ill person would develop delusions of grandeur anyway but that the public statements of a high profile Christian could nonetheless catalyze the particular forms a delusion may take.

There was a woman who claimed to have keen insights and who told me that something I mentioned in passing spoke to someone in a troubled marriage. I mentioned to the self-described seer that the thing I mentioned in passage referred to an infant. No matter, in the mind of this seer the feedback loop of one's own divine inbox in the mind was all that mattered. It was sad, really, and continues to be sad.

Of all the things I have seen about how Christians pretend and proclaim this or that about the nature of being a prophet or prophecy few things are more aggravating than the pervasive misrepresentation about what the role of a prophet normally is, or that the role of the prophet is necessarily normal. I've already written at some length about how a preacher is not a prophet, no matter how badly the preacher wants his ego stroked so that he imagines he's got a prophetic gift because someone lets him be a pastor. I have also written about how some self-appointed prophets are just plain insane. But there is a larger responsibility God's people have as a whole. If we misrepresent or misunderstand the communal role of the prophet historically then we have no chance of battling strains of Montanism or other errant beliefs.

A preacher who is a cessationist who thinks he stands firm in battling Montanism and actually believes that "prophecy" is fulfilled in role by preaching is accomplishing nothing. When people say there are no prophets because Christ has come they also misconstrue what the role of the prophet was in ancient Israel. Could not any number of Israelites have said there was no need for prophets or psalms? After all, the Torah was given by the Lord Himself to Moses. A cessationist argument from the completeness of divine revelation fails because there is no exegetical case to be made that the scriptures were referring to themselves.

If the Torah was complete why was there a granting of a prophetic role in Deuteronomy 18 to begin with? It's not to say Christians must expect a prophet or seer to fill in gaps left untouched by the scriptures (i.e. Torah or the Bible as a whole). It's that if Christians do not find such gifts we can trust that the Lord has given us enough to live for Him even when we have no answers. Ironically it took a prophet to articulate this in a uniquely memorable way. Who walks in darkness and has no light? Let him trust in the Lord. Those who light their own path and light a fire to warm themselves by the Lord promised this, that they would lie down in torment. There comes a point where it is better to admit the Lord has hidden Himself and gives no answers than to presume that anyone has answers. This means those preachers who assume cessationism because they see no evidence the Spirit works in this or that way; those preachers who assume that because the scriptures are complete there is no need for gifts; these are people who are not exegeting the scriptures but are at risk, it seems, of lighting their own path where the Lord has not spelled out explicitly that "these things never happen".

But the alternative to the cessationist is not necessarily the continuationist as usually appears in America! In the last twenty years the greatest error I have seen about spiritual gifts perpetuated among Christians is the idea that the gift is persistent and can be used for personal gain. We don't say this but we believe it. How many self-described prophets ultimately gun for a special relationship with a pastor or a church? If I cannot say "all of them" it is because I am aware that not all are tempted in precisely the same way, nevertheless I'd be willing to say "most of them"!

The illusion of asymmetric insight allows groups of us humans to circle the wagons and assume the worst about anyone outside our group, especially if those people on the outside offer criticisms of us, no matter how substantial those criticisms may be.

In Christian blogging I'd venture to say that John MacArthur and the young, restless Reformed are both doing a mighty fine job of demonstrating the illusion of asymmetric insight. :) People pro and con on SGM and C. J. Mahaney can and will display the illusion of asymmetric insight. And, yes, the illusion of asymmetric insight has everything to do with what I've seen in the last six years about Mars Hill and Driscoll. It is also the hallmark of a lunatic self-styled prophet who believes that having discernment super-powers means you can make sweeping remarks about other people while refusing to grant a rudimentary scriptural command that we confess our sins one to another. The application and implication of the illusion of asymmetric insight in politics was discussed sufficiently enough in the original post I won't really discuss that.

I find it more interesting to discuss asymmetric insight with respect to religious communities because I have seen some hard-core cases of people operating with that illusion within a community; then when things go south and their social capital and trajectory takes a nosedive they maintain the illusion of assymetric insight in a new way and instead of praising and defending the community they condemn and critique without so much as attempting to share positive aspects about the group or to concede their earlier role of dismissing dissenters as motivated by sour grapes. People who let any number of things slide because they had weight to throw around in the community can become remarkably testy about how abusive the community is while forgetting one's own role in the abuse. A self-described prophet finds it much easier to dish out than receive the perks of having a "prophetic" voice.

I'm not saying there aren't real rights and wrongs on any given subject I mentioned above, I'm simply discussing the temptation that will beset people on all sides of a controversy precisely because succumbing to that temptation will make things worse rather than better. It's possible to propose that someone is genuinely wrong about something without assuming the worst about their motives. It is also possible for a person who is going down a wrong path to sincerely believe it is the right path. After all, doesn't proverbs say that there is a way that seems right to a man but it's end leads to death? When it seems right to you, even approved by God, how can you possibly turn aside from the path that you are sure God is leading you down? How could you even know that it wasn't the Lord telling you something or giving you some insight?

In this way, ultimately, the illusion of asymmetric insight can be broadly described as a breach of the Golden Rule.

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