Thursday, May 7, 2009

The Holier-than-Thou Effect

In an article in the health section of the New York Times, Benedict Cary pointed out that social psychologists have recently been studying what they call the “holier-than-thou” effect. It is well known that people tend to over estimate their own abilities, fortunes, status, discipline and sincerity.

On example cited is a study of Cornell students. They were asked to predict how likely they would be to buy a daffodil at Daffodil Days, a four-day campus event to raise money for the American Cancer Society. 83% predicted that they would buy at least one flower while thinking that only 56% of their peers would do so. This clearly indicates a “holier-than-thou” attitude among the students. Five weeks later at the actual event, only 43% of the same students purchased a daffodil. Not only did they feel morally superior to others, but they also overestimated their own righteousness. “Researchers have repeatedly demonstrated that people on average tend to think they are more charitable, cooperative, considerate, fair, kind, loyal, and sincere than the typical person but less belligerent, deceitful, gullible, lazy, impolite, mean, and unethical---just to name a few, says Nicholas Epley and David Dunning of Cornell University.

Remember the story of the Publican and the Pharisee? The Pharisee, who Jesus knew to be a hypocrite, stands proudly proclaiming, “‘God, I thank You that I am not like other men—extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.’” (Luke 18 11)” What research is showing us is that today it is the norm to be like the Pharisee. In our moral pronouncements we tend to overestimate our ability to act with moral conviction. In this sense we are no different than the Hypocrites Jesus railed against.

Is this how we act in our practice of the Lord’s commandments? Do we think that we are more likely to follow the Lord’s will than others? Do we in reality fall short of our own estimation of our own standards? Is it possible that we may be blind to our own sinfulness?

When it comes to our own estimation of our godliness we do overestimate our self-evaluation of the morality of our actions. This may be why so few take advantage of the Sacrament of Confession. When we think about confession we often think, “I am not a sinner.” Because of this optimistic self-evaluation we do not partake of this most important and healing sacrament. If you find yourself thinking this way, reflect on this “holier than -thou” effect and try to examine how it works on yourself.

Coming back to the story of the Publican and the Pharisee, what did the tax collector, who is among the most despised class of people of that time, do? “Standing afar off, [he] would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’ Jesus completes this parable saying, “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

"Not only can you wish but you must endeavor to perfect yourself in humility, that is, to regard yourself in your heart that as lower than every human being and every creature.”
Ambrose of Optima

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