Tests would much easier if teachers would allow us to replace hard questions with easier ones. What is the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow? That’s a tough one, and it would take way too much mental energy to work it out. So I think I’ll tell you what my favorite color is instead. Guaranteed A+.
We may not be able to do that on exams, but we do it in real life all the time, usually without even noticing.
According to David Kahneman, author of Thinking, Fast and Slow, we have a built-in tendency to dodge hard questions by answering easier ones instead. For example, I was just asked to vote on a local school levy. That’s a trickier vote than it looks. To answer well, I’d need to know whether our schools need more money than they currently receive and whether the projects they would like to fund with the new levy are worthwhile. And I have relatively little information about either of those issues. But I voted “yes” to the levy without even a moment of reflection. How could I possibly arrive at a such a confident answer to these difficult questions so quickly? According to Kahneman, there’s a pretty good chance that I unconsciously substituted a far easier question: Do I support my wife (who happens to be a teacher)? That’s easy! And our lazy brains like easy questions.
So I check “yes” on the ballot because I’ve answered “yes” to the question of whether I support my wife rather than the more difficult question of whether I support the levy. Those are completely different questions, of course, but my brain doesn’t mind. It likes easy questions.
The Substitution Mistake
In situations like this, two things actually happen:
- The Question Substitution: replacing a hard question with an easier question.
- The Confidence Transfer: taking the confident feeling that comes from answering the easier question and applying it to how confident you feel about your answer to the harder question.
So I drop my ballot in the mail feeling very confident about how I’ve answered a difficult question, never noticing that my brain had pulled a fast one on me and that my confident feeling is actually based on my answer to a different question entirely.
I think we do that in theology more than we realize.
Dodging Hard Questions in Theology
Let’s bring this home with an example of how it might work in theology. Do you think the Bible teaches that men and women have different roles in the church? In other words, does the Bible support complementarianism or egalitarianism? That’s a challenging question. And an adequate answer requires extensive exegesis of key biblical texts, a comprehensive grasp of biblical theology, an ability to think integratively across all areas of theology, an understanding of church history and tradition, as well as familiarity with your own cultural context and the impact of modern thought. And that’s just getting started.
Yet I find that people often come to rather confident conclusions to this difficult question with surprisingly little work. It’s as though the answer to the question is just obvious. But it’s not.
Maybe the answer seems obvious because they’re actually answering a different question. I sometimes hear complementarians talk about how they prefer to listen to a man preach, subtly inserting “What do I like most?” into the discussion. I’ve heard egalitarians talk about a woman pastor who was influential in their lives, exchanging “Do I think she was a good pastor?” for the question at hand. People on both sides like to answer “What does my church/tradition think?” I could keep going with examples, but you get the point. In each case, we’re answering a different question than we think we are.
If that’s the case, then the confidence we feel when answering the hard question is actually being transferred from the easier question.
And the problem is not with the questions themselves. There’s nothing wrong with asking about our experiences, preferences, and traditions. We need to ask those questions. The problem is when we think our answer to these easier questions actually constitutes an answer to the harder question, resulting in a misplaced confidence in our position.
I’m probably going to get comments about the complementarian/egalitarian debate itself. And that’s not really the point here. I could have used any debated theological issue as an example. For every difficult theological issue, there are a host of easier and somewhat related questions that we can answer instead. So I’m just raising the gender debate as an interesting example.
I’m also not saying that anyone who has a confident position on a subject like this has actually made the substitution mistake. It’s entirely possible that they have worked through the issues, grappled with the difficulties, and arrived at a thoughtful conclusion. So this post isn’t trying to argue that confident conclusions are impossible, just that sometimes the confidence comes from a different source than we think.
Third, there’s also nothing necessarily wrong with getting confidence from some of these other places. Maybe my confidence to the gender question comes from my confidence in a trusted teacher. I haven’t studied the issues thoroughly, but he or she has. And I trust them. As long as I’m aware that my confidence comes from “Do you trust this person?” rather than “Is this what the Bible teaches?,” then at least you’re clear about where your confidence is coming from.
Finally, we need to be clear that very few people make the substitution mistake on purpose. It’s not as though I’m intentionally trying to dodge a difficult theological issue by answer an easier question instead. It’s largely an unconscious move, a technique that our brains use to conserve power. Sometimes I’m sure it serves us quite well. Other times, we need to tap that brain power and make sure we’re answering the right questions.
What Are You Dodging?
A post like this naturally leads me to wonder what hard questions I’m unintentionally dodging. And I’m not sure yet. The tricky thing about the substitution mistake is how easy it is to miss. But I’m starting to think my way through some of the difficult questions on which I have fairly confident positions, reflecting on the source(s) of my confidence. I’m sure that in at least a few cases, I’ve transferred confidence from easier questions.
What about you?