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.

Can money buy happiness?

Apparently yes, if it is spent correctly. I wonder if this makes routine tithing as a path to happiness?

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How do we know if people are flourishing?

As Margarita Mooney so ably put forth in a previous post, Sociology is in need of an attitude adjustment (my words, not hers). Namely, the focus of so much sociology is on the problems of society (in fact, many sociological courses are taught as a variation of the theme social problems), but this shunts aside an equally interesting and important question: What makes people, groups, and society prosper? We shouldn’t just assume that the solutions in society are simply the reverse of the causes of its problems, for causation isn’t always symmetrical.

This inquiry into a “positive” sociology (which is unrelated to positivism) is challenging in sociology because like to think at so many levels of analysis–including the individual, small group, organization, culture, and society. So, what one definition of positive sociology will span all levels? Beats me.

Starting at the micro-level, sociologist Cory Keyes, of Emory, has identified 13 dimensions along with individual-level well-being varies. He terms this flourishing. (He actually coined the term in this context, so he did flourishing before flourishing was cool).

  1. Regular positive affect–cheerful, happy, good spirits, etc… over the last 30 days
  2. Avowed happiness–feels happy
  3. Self-acceptance–Holds positive attitude toward onself
  4. Social acceptance–positive attitudes toward others
  5. Personal growth-shows insight into own potential, development
  6. Social actualization-believes groups can evolve positively
  7. Purpose in life–holds goals and believes that affirm a sense of direction and meaning in life
  8. Social contribution–feels that one’s life is useful to society
  9. Environmental mastery–can manage complex environments
  10. Social coherence–Interested in society or social life, feels they are intelligible and meaningful
  11. Autonomy–Exhibits self-direction, resists unsavory social pressures
  12. Positive relations with others—Warm, satisfying, trusting personal relationships
  13. Social integration–Sense of belonging in a community, comfort and support from others

What strikes me as I read this is how inherently social well-being is. About half of these are explicitly social, and the remaining are certainly affected by social factors. Linking these dimensions to larger social processes seems a promising approach to advancing a positive sociology.

If nothing else, these 13 dimensions give us a powerful tool to assess how we and others are doing in life.

Theory of Self Determination and Christianity

One of the joys of being an academic is reading in a wide range of research literatures and learning from them. Yesterday I was reading about the Self-Determination Theory. It’s a theory of human motivation, and it holds that humans have three general needs that they must meet for optimal function and growth: relatedness, autonomy, and competency.

Relatedness is being connected to others. Autonomy isn’t being independent of others, rather it’s “being a causal agent” in one’s own life. Competency is being able to control outcomes and express mastery.

This got me to thinking about how this theory maps on to the prescriptions of Christianity, and if this gives insight into the functionality (at least at the individual-level) of the faith.

Clearly Christianity fosters connectedness, both to other people and to God. At its core it teaches love for others and for God, and the faith is structured in various levels of groupings–from small groups to denominations.

Autonomy takes a specific guise. In one sense, Christianity promises freedom–from a sinful nature. In another, however, it’s about dependence and reliance on God and others.

Competency is less straightforward. There are verses that put forth the need to work hard to get what you want (thinking sluggards vs. the diligent in proverbs).  But, by and large, I don’t think that it teaches a lot about being competent (unless I’m missing something. Which, if so, I suppose calls into question my own competency). Instead the Bible seems to emphasize the competency (or ability to make things happen) of God, and so, perhaps that becomes competency for us as we tap into it via prayer and following Him.

I’m not sure that I would push this analysis too far, but it does give a different perspective for the ways that Christianity promotes functioning and growth.