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Are We In Control of Our Own Decisions?

Behavioral economist Dan Ariely has spent a lifetime studying why smart people make irrational decisions.  His book, Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces that Shape Our Decisions, is available on Amazon.  If you want a shorter introduction to his methodology, you can watch his TED talk here.

As it turns out, there are many reasons that smart people make irrational decisions.  But the one I would like to focus on is that people are far more likely to choose the default position.  For anyone who has studied web design, you should already know that.  If you give two groups of people the exact same feature but let one group opt-in (make a choice to activate it) and let the other group opt-out (make a choice to deactivate it), the two groups will end up with vastly different proportions of people that use the same exact feature.

One example that Ariely used was the rate of drivers donating organs in similar countries.

You can see that the rates are so incredibly different between countries with similar geographical locations and cultures.  The reason is that the default choice for the countries on the right is to donate organs while the default for the others is to not be a donor. Netherlands only was able to reach 28% because they sent a letter to each and every home begging for increased participation in the program.

What effect does this have on Mormonism?

Think about the people you know who are Mormon.  If you’re in North America, the overwhelming majority of the Mormons you know were born in the church.  They were raised that way and it was the default choice.

Beyond that, how many eight-year old kids raised in a strong Mormon family really are making that conscious choice that they believe in the church?  Have they really received an answer to their prayers?  Do they understand church history and doctrine?  If they doubted or disagreed, would they have the courage and the ability to go against their family and friends?

What about adults?

Of course, the people reading this are likely adults.  You believe that you do understand fully your decision.  Some of you claim to have received answers to your prayers and to understand church history and doctrine.

But if you grew up in the church, you are already caught.  Escalation of commitment is the psychological phenomenon that explains why people throw good money after bad.  You are already Mormon.  You have been Mormon your entire life.  You may have served a mission.  You have invested a great deal of time and effort into the church, culture, and friendships.

Most people share the same religion as their parents.  It was the default choice.  And it can be a very difficult thing to ask themselves, “What do I really believe and why do I believe it?”

Add in the following biases, just for fun:

  • Choice supportive bias – the tendency to retroactively ascribe positive attributes to an option one has selected
  • Post-purchase rationalization – someone who purchases an expensive product or service overlooks any faults or defects in order to justify their purchase
  • Wishful thinking – the formation of beliefs and making decisions according to what might be pleasing to imagine instead of by appealing to evidence, rationality or reality
  • Confirmation bias – the tendency to search for or interpret information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions
  • Mere exposure effect – the tendency to express undue liking for things merely because of familiarity with them
  • Bias blind spot – the tendency to see oneself as less biased than other people
  • Bandwagon effect – the tendency to do (or believe) things because many other people do (or believe) the same
  • Congruence bias – the tendency to test hypotheses exclusively through direct testing, in contrast to tests of possible alternative hypotheses
  • Attentional bias – implicit cognitive bias defined as the tendency of emotionally dominant stimuli in one’s environment to preferentially draw and hold attention
  • Empathy gap – the tendency to underestimate the influence or strength of feelings, in either oneself or others
  • Backfire effect – evidence disconfirming our beliefs only strengthens them
  • Expectation bias – the tendency for experimenters to believe, certify, and publish data that agree with their expectations for the outcome of an experiment, and to disbelieve, discard, or downgrade the corresponding weightings for data that appear to conflict with those expectations
  • Semmelweis reflex – the tendency to reject new evidence that contradicts a paradigm
  • Status quo bias – the tendency to like things to stay relatively the same

Of course, the fact that these biases exist and that so many Mormons were raised Mormon doesn’t mean the church isn’t true.  But it should prompt the rational thinker to pause and take notice.  If you can’t objectively analyze your beliefs, you have no business believing in the first place.

Next Step: Questions and Truth

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