We’re Not Good at Estimating Our Goodness

Author Amy K. Hall Published on 02/12/2014

Here’s an interesting study with theological implications:

[A] team led by Constantine Sedikides has surveyed 85 incarcerated offenders at a prison in South East England about their prosocial traits. The inmates were aged 18 to 34 and the majority had been jailed for acts of violence and robbery....

Compared with “an average prisoner” the participants rated themselves as more moral, kinder to others, more self-controlled, more law-abiding, more compassionate, more generous, more dependable, more trustworthy, and more honest. Remarkably, they also rated themselves as higher on all these traits than “an average member of the community”, with one exception—law-abiding. The prisoners rated themselves as equivalent on this trait relative to an average community member.

Sedikides and his team say these results show the better-than-average effect cannot be explained by the fact that most participants are in fact better than average. In this case, they said there was “good reason to assume that the average non-prisoner is more honest and law abiding than the average prisoner.”

Past research (pdf) on intellectual performance has shown that it is weaker performers who most over-estimate their own ability. Sedikides and his colleagues wondered if their new results add to this pattern, and raise the possibility of a more general tendency for those with especially poor skills or detrimental behavioural habits to lack insight into their own person.

I encountered this once, years ago, when I came across a blog post written by an incarcerated murderer, wherein he mentioned he was “a good person.” I was stunned—not because of how wrong that particular person obviously was, but because at that moment I realized just how deep the human capacity for self-deception is. And I recognized that I and everyone around me were included in that sobering realization.

That moment changed the way I understood our sin and God’s holiness forever. Whenever anyone claims our sins don’t deserve Hell, I think of that murderer. We have no reason to think we’re not as deluded as he is about what we deserve. We compare ourselves with the people around us who engage in a similar level of sin, and like that murderer, we feel pretty good about ourselves. But here’s what will happen when we finally see things the way they objectively are—and by “things,” I mean both God and ourselves:

Woe is me, for I am ruined!
Because I am a man of unclean lips,
And I live among a people of unclean lips;
For my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts. (Isaiah 6:5)

The article quoted above says that “the prospects for helping [people who overestimate themselves] (and for rehabilitating prisoners) is not promising.” The prospects for helping them spiritually are similarly bleak. Who asks for a pardon when he doesn’t think he needs one? Who sees salvation as gracious when he thinks he deserves it? Who sees God as good when he thinks he’s being unjustly condemned?

Our understanding of our sin and God’s holiness is crucial. It’s also impossible for us to apprehend even remotely accurately on our own. But with God all things are possible. Our hope is in the Holy Spirit, who “convicts the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment”—a great and terrible service, without which none of us would ever see ourselves, see God, be reconciled to Him, and enjoy Him forever.

(HT: Joe Carter)