Questions of Value – Revisted – June 21, 2015

While Fr. Mike is away,

Wayne Harper will lead the

Adult Forum on June 21 and July 5. 

Wayne will be the facilitator

as we examine

fundamental questions of value,

and how they impact our lives:


  *How well do you ‘know thyself’?

  *What is happiness?

  *How does one justify a moral claim?

  *What happens when values conflict?


This morning, Wayne led some lively discussions about the following topics:


> How do we evaluate ourselves?

> Are you a good friend to others?

> Are you an over-achiever or an under-achiever?

> Are you better than average?  (Are self-serving biases for real?)

> What are three of the 3-word things that are hardest to say in the English language.

     — I don’t know

     — I was wrong

     — I’ll do it

> Do we all live a life of self-deception?

> Is it necessary for survival?

> How do we feel about our reputation?


There are no concrete right or wrong answers about the question we discussed, but it really makes you think about various aspects of you life and about being human!


Listed below are Wayne’s notes and thoughts from our morning’s session.

Credits are listed at the end of the notes.



Questions of Value*





‘Know Thyself’.  Most of us are familiar with this ancient Greek Delphic maxim, but few take it seriously.  Perhaps you fail to see any need to know thyself.  After all, you spend more time with yourself than with any other person; so, how can you not know thyself?  Let’s examine the extent we know ourselves; focusing on how we ‘value’ ourselves. 


How do you ‘see’ yourself?  How would you evaluate yourself (relative to others) with respect to character traits, abilities, accomplishments, etc.?  Are you concerned how others ‘see’ you?


Question:  How are you at managing your money: better than average, average, or less than average? 


Question:  Compared to the average person your age, how good a friend are you: better than average, average, or less than average?


Question:  Compared to the average person, how honest are you: better than average, average, or less than average?


Studies have shown that most people consider themselves better than average on most positive attributes.  A classic example: when asked to rate their driving skills, roughly 80 percent of respondents rated themselves better than the average driver.  The only problem is that most abilities and psychological characteristics are roughly normally distributed, which means that they fall into a bell-shaped distribution with an equal number of people falling below the average and above the average.  This better-than-average effect is just one example of what psychologists call self-serving biases which revolve around the notion that most people think they are better than they actually are.  Almost everybody is inherently egotistical and prone to an assortment of self-serving biases.


People often have surprisingly poor insight into their strengths, flaws and abilities.  Not only do we tend to overestimate our talents, we also tend to overestimate our knowledge; we overvalue our possessions, our associations, and even our own initials.  For example, merely owning something makes people view it as better and more valuable.  People overvalue things they own because they believe (often mistakenly) they have an eye for quality and would never settle for less.  People tend to think that their friends, children, personal values, and alma maters, while not perfect, are better on average than those of other people.  It is difficult for us to see the biases that we all have in favor of ourselves because we naturally believe that our own beliefs about ourselves are true.  We readily see these biases in others, but not ourselves.


Question:  What are the three hardest words (i.e., phrase) in the English language? 


Some experts feel that self-serving biases are beneficial or at least harmless.  They suggest that it’s healthy and helpful to maintain positive illusions about oneself, which create positive emotions and helps people stay motivated when they encounter setbacks and difficulties.  Other experts agree that people do feel better when they evaluate themselves more positively than they should, but they argue that there are significant costs both for the person and for the people around them. 


Overestimating one’s personal ability or skill can lead people to pursue goals that are beyond their ability and set them up for failure.  People who overestimate their capabilities are more likely to be overconfident; they may take greater risks, and get themselves into situations that they are unable to handle.  People that believe they are better than average may conclude that they have no need or room to improve.   


Self-serving biases can damage our relationships with other people.  Individuals working in groups are vulnerable: if the group succeeds, some members will tend to take too much credit; if the group fails, other members will tend to take too little responsibility.  Both patterns can lead to conflict.  People who see themselves as better than average will feel they deserve more credit for success and less blame for failure.  Of course, others in the group may feel the same way.


Question:  Are self-serving biases linked to a ‘need’ for self-esteem?


How did all this come to be?  Consider ‘life’ in its entirety: plants, animals, humans.  Deception is often essential to survival.  Just ask the Cuttlefish!  OK, but what about self-deception.  Does self-deception have any function?  Any value?  One theory suggests self-deception helps us conceal our efforts to deceive others.  That is, self-deception helps us avoid the ‘tells’ that might lead others to discover our deception.  And this is important because deception, while it might have its rewards, carries significant risk.  If found out, the costs can be steep. 


Question:  How does deception play a role in your life?


Question:  Does self-deception undermine our ability to ‘Know Thyself’?  Is it ‘curable’?




Evidence suggests we deceive ourselves, thinking better of ourselves, for two reasons: one, it makes us feel better; and two, to impress others and enhance our reputation.


Question:  Why do we care what others think of us?


Normal humans typically are concerned how they are perceived by others.  Most of us want to be viewed positively.  That’s because we want to be included, accepted and appreciated – we want to be ‘loved’.  This need to be loved leads many, often subconsciously, to exaggerate or manipulate their public persona.  On the other hand, some knowingly misrepresent themselves to get what they want, Machiavellians for example.  Sociopaths don’t seem to care what others think of them.


Most desirable social outcomes in life depend on being perceived in particular ways; depend on the impressions other people form of us.  We pay attention to our public image and selectively present impressions that help to achieve our goals.  Sometimes this involves making negative impressions; ‘playing dumb’ or being a ‘hard ass’.  Although impression management is a natural, normal, adaptive response, it has its downside.  It can cause social anxiety and lead to dangerous behavior:  fear of public speaking, ‘choking’, taking risks to impress our peers. 


All too often we focus more on image over substance.  Consider online dating.  Scientific studies of online dating profiles reveal both sexes frequently exaggerate attributes valued by the opposite sex.  For example, men exaggerate their income and tack on a couple inches to their actual height.  Women present themselves 10 to 15 pounds less than their actual weight and shave years off their real age.  Both show unrepresentative photos; often taken many years earlier.   


Question:  If you had to choose, would you prefer to be perceived positively or accurately?


We spend our entire life constructing a personal story or narrative.  Our experiences and particularly our memory of those experiences serve as the building blocks of our story.  We all do this.  It seems to be a by-product of our humanity.  And it’s essential if we (or others) see fit to evaluate our lives in their entirety.  The duration of our lives seems to matter very little.  It’s the content of our lives – the significant events and memorable moments – that matters most, and the ending often defines its value or worth.  Admittedly, our personal narrative is much more than our reputation.  But it serves as ‘evidence’ to confirm or deny our reputation.


Question: It’s been said: In the end, all you have is your reputation.  Do you agree?




If most everybody is inherently egotistical and prone to an assortment of self-serving biases; and most everybody engages in deception at times; and most everybody is concerned with their public image and reputation; and most everybody is cautioned to look out for number one, how then to explain friendship. 


Humans are social beings by nature.  To behave otherwise is considered eccentric at best, pathological at worst.  So we readily form all sorts of social bonds, one upon the next, to create the social networks that comprise our greater society.  And many of the social bonds we form are bonds of friendship.  Friendship is an investment; it has its benefits and costs. 


Question:  Friendship is considered by many to be a core value.  What is friendship?


One of the virtues which Aristotle examined quite extensively was friendship.  Aristotle believed that there are three different kinds of friendship: that of utility, friendship of pleasure, and virtuous friendship.  Aristotle’s theories regarding friendship break down into self-love, of which self-love of utility and self-love of pleasure become selfishness, while self-love of virtue is the highest good a person can achieve.  Aristotle argued that friendship deserved to be so highly valued because it is complete virtue, so much so, that it be raised above both honor and justice.


Question:  Who do you consider a friend and why?  Do Facebook friends apply?


There’s an app for that!  Want to tell your friends how you really feel about them without identifying yourself or saying it to their face?  If so, you’ll love the new, ironically-named app Gutsy.  Available for the iPhone, Gutsy is an app that ostensibly lets you develop more open and honest friendships by allowing you and your friends to anonymously answer a series of questions about each other.  Gutsy works by letting you cycle through your available list of friends (it pulls them from your connected Instagram account) and a list of up to 100 available questions. Interestingly, your friends don’t even have to be connected to the service for you to answer questions about them.  Keep in mind, your friends will receive these messages, but they’ll never know the answers were from you.


Question: Is Gutsy a legitimate way to develop more open and honest friendships?




* The bulk of materials offered were borrowed and adapted by Wayne Harper for our use from: ‘Understanding the Mysteries of Human Behavior’ taught by Mark Leary, produced by The Teaching Company.



We all look forward to session two on July 5!