The Power of a Simple Plan, But Should Christians Do It?

In the 1990s, a sociology psychologist named Peter Gollwitzer conducted a fabulously useful experiment. He wanted to know under what conditions intentions to do a behavior actually translated into doing behavior.

To find out, he did a simple experiment. His university students were getting ready to leave for home at the end of the fall semester, and he gave them a simple task to do. Write an essay about what they did on Christmas Day and send it to Gollwitzer within 48 hours of Christmas Day. The actual content of the task wasn’t relevant, instead Gollwitzer wanted to see how many students who agreed to do it actually did it.

Half of the students were simply asked to do the task and were given not further instruction. Of them, 32% followed through on the plan to write and send the essay.

The other half, however, we asked to do the task and they were asked to decide right then when and where they would write the essay. Of these students, a whopping 71% actually wrote and sent the essay.

Simply taking a moment or two to plan how they were going to follow through on the intention more than doubled their likelihood of doing so.

Gollwitzer calls this planning how to do things “implementation intentions,” and they appear to work with all sorts of behaviors. In a 2006 meta-analysis, Gollwitzer and Sheeran found that implementation intentions had a similar effect on behaviors related to health, academic achievements, weight loss, antiracism, altruism, and many others.

So, do we want our plans to be more effective? If so, then in addition to making the intention, we should make implementation intentions as well. For example, my intention is that “I will write this blog post.” My corresponding implementation intentions are “I will write this blog post at 9:30, after I finish my academic writing for the morning. I will write it in my home office using Gollwitzer’s meta-analysis as a guide. I’ll post it immediately afterwards.”

Given the dramatic impact of implementation intentions, I wonder why I don’t do them with all my plans? Perhaps if it’s my intention to do so, I should make implementation intentions about how to make implementation intentions. Something along the lines of, when I make plans, I will correspondingly make implementation intentions by … the who, what, where, and how of doing it. (I’m going to have to think about that one).

Sometimes I wonder if we Christians are unsure of detailed planning because it feels unspiritual. For example, James 4:13 warns against being sure about what will happen in the future, for we don’t “even know what will happen tomorrow.” For many Christians, a key feature of the faith is following God’s direction and doing his will. “Not my will but yours,” or some variation of it, has got to be in the top 10 of prayers uttered by Christians.

What does it mean, then, to follow God’s leading and still also make detailed, effective plans for the future? I have some ideas, but right now the question is more real to me than my answers to it.

Any thoughts?

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The Difficulties of Racially-Integrated Churches

I have been reading the sociological literature on race and religion, especially multiracial churches. A common observation is that Christian churches are relatively segregated by race and ethnicity. Different scholars have different estimates of the segregation, and it depends on how it’s measured. Among the statistics I’ve read: an estimated 90% of American Congregations draw at least 90% of their members from a single racial group and only about 8% of churches fit the description of multiracial.

In reading studies of integrated churches, I am struck by how very, very difficult it is to have multiple racial and ethnic groups in one church.

There are distinct advantages to demographic homogeneity (fancy work for saying that people are similar to one another). In fact, some churches explicitly tailor their outreach to specific “types” of people, and this approach often associates with specific racial or ethnic groups. Emerson and Smith (2000) likened it to retail stores aiming for a specific market—clothes for teens, kitchen supplies for the wealthy, electronic gizmos for middle-aged men. People often want to be in a church with others like them—they felt more readily understood, so this approach is effective.

When churches do seek racial integration, it can bear substantial costs. Among the possible costs that scholars have identified:

  • Churches feel like they are losing their identity
  • Churches have less feeling of group solidarity
  • Worship services are reworked
  • Decision making processes are changed
  • New staff are hired
  • Services and materials are offered in multiple languages
  • Communication, both verbal and non-verbal, is frequently misinterpreted
  • Conflict arises in church about the smallest of issues. (One study told of a race-related row about where to place a statue)
  • Food service at fellowship events are changed
  • Length and style of sermons are changed
  • And on and on and on

One pastor exclaimed that multiracial ministry is simply exhausting, and this seems to be true in terms of time, energy, and material resources.

While some church growth specialists have argued in favor of a homogenous ministry outreach, most Christians (myself included) seem to be in favor of racially integrated community life. My point here is not to advocate racial integration as much as to be aware of the significant difficulties of accomplishing it.

Do Students Remember Anything They Learn in Class? Probably Not, So….

In preparing for another semester, I am struck yet again by how very little I remembered from my undergraduate classes and, correspondingly, how little my students will probably remember too. In fact, once I give a test on a subject, it’s not uncommon for them to forget much of the material almost immediately.

The comedian Father Guido Sarducci makes this point when he proposes a “Five-Minute University” in which students are only taught what they will remember years later, and that only takes five minutes.

Perhaps in response, I have over time put less emphasis on students remembering details of what we’re studying and more emphasis on learning how to think certain ways. I try to spend about half my class periods reviewing theories of topic under discussion. In large classes, I have students watch documentaries and analyze them using the theories. In small classes, I have student collect their own data–usually by observing social situations outside of the classroom–in light of the theories.

Either way, it is my hope that by giving students practice in how to think like a sociologist, beyond remembering the details of sociological studies, that they will have something with them in the future. Who knows, maybe I’ll increase what they remember up to 10 minutes!


Should Parents Force Their Children to Attend Church?

In preparing my classes for this coming semester, I reviewed one of the best known studies in social psychology studies—Festinger and Carlsmith’s $1/$20 study, and I was struck, yet again, by its wide ranging implications, including how we should get our children to go to church.

The study illustrates the principles of cognitive dissonance, and it found that peoples’ enjoyment of an experience is influenced by the benefits and costs associated with that experience, but not always in ways that one would expect.

Festinger and Carlsmith gave respondents a tedious job to do, the laboratory equivalent of digging a hole in the ground and filling it back up. Then they had the respondents tell other people whether or not they liked doing the job. Some respondents were given $1 for their efforts, and some were given $20.

Lo and behold, the people getting only one dollar said they liked the experience much more than the ones who were given $20. That’s right, less reward was associated with more reported enjoyment.

The explanation for this counter-intuitive finding goes something like this: The people who were given only $1 couldn’t use the reward to explain why they did the task, after all, it was only one dollar. So, they assumed that the task must have been somewhat interesting. In contrast, the people getting $20 (which, since the study was conducted in 1959, was worth about $50,000 in today’s dollars) knew why they did the task—for the money. They could view the task as dreadful and still make sense of their behavior.

This logic applies to punishments as well. Threatening to punish someone severely to get them to do something gives them a ready explanation for why they did it, to avoid punishment, so there’s no emotional incentive to find something they like in the activity. Take away the punishment and their attitudes might change toward the positive.

Let’s apply this to an issue that Christian parents often face: Getting our children to go to church and enjoy the experience (or, at least on some Sundays, just not hate it). My youngest son, Floyd, is rather comfortable expressing his emotions and one Sunday he did not want to go to church but somehow he ended up there anyway. He spent the first 20 minutes slouched down, with his arms crossed, and with a pouty scowl on his face. Thanks to the magic of iPhones, I got a great picture of it which someday will show up at a major life event such as his wedding. Thankfully, however, most Sundays go much better.

Applied to churchgoing, the theory of cognitive dissonance would suggest that it is important to use as light a touch as possible in getting children to go to church—at least if we want them to like it. Sure, we can bribe or threaten but doing so will likely result in them thinking they go to church solely for the reward or to avoid the punishment, and there is no reason for them to find something in the service that they enjoy. Furthermore, once they are on their own, and away from our rewards and punishments, they have no reason to go.

Instead, gentle coaxing and persuasion, rather than duct tape, seems like the preferred strategy for getting kids to church. Many Christian families require their children to attend church every week, which I think is fine. In our house we require them to join us on most Sundays, but we sometimes give them the option of staying home. On the Sundays when they don’t want to go, but they have to, we look to persuade rather than force. We want them not only to attend church, but also to enjoy the many things that it has to offer, and strong-arming them might blind them to the good things waiting for them.