Why we overestimate the prevalence of abusive priests, dishonest pastors, and unloving congregations

Cognitive heuristics are mental shortcuts–rules of thumbs–that we use to make judgments about ourselves and the world around us. On of the best known heuristics is the “availability heuristic” that goes as follows. As we estimate the frequency with which something happens, we start by trying to think of an example of it, and if we can quickly think of an example then we think it’s a frequent occurrence.

Like most heuristics, it works well often, but it produces biases in some forms of social thinking. In particular, it highlights the potential for the media to distort our understanding about the probability of events.

You see, the media focuses on what’s uncommon or at least unexpected, and understandably so for who would want to read, hear, or watch information that is totally predicable? (“Next on the grass growing channel….”). As a result, however, the media gives us vivid portrayals of what rarely happens, and we then overestimate the frequency with which they happen.

Easy example. The verbal gaffes of presidential candidates are big news, so we can easily assume that they make them often when, in point of fact, they might be relatively rare. (At least a lot less frequent than mine).

Now, let’s apply this type of thinking to portrayals of religious figures.

What makes news about religious people? Various things, of course, but in particular when they do not act in alignment with their beliefs. We all love a good, juicy “hypocrite” story after all. So, a priest abusing a child or a pastor stealing from his flock or whatever the religious scandal of the day is makes such information much more available when we recall it. This leads us to think that it happens more often than it does.

Case in point. In my Sociology of Christianity class, I have my students visit local churches and analyze the services from the perspective of various sociological theories. Their papers on their experiences nearly unanimously describe the congregants that they met as friendly and warm to them, and there’s an undertone of surprise. Why shouldn’t there be, after all, because congregations make news most often when they do shocking things like protesting military funerals or burning a copy of the Koran. Peaceful, loving Christians are the rule in both their frequency and lack of newsworthiness, and as a result–due to the availability heuristic–we underestimate their prevalence.

More thoughts on homophily and faith

After writing about religion and social homophily (i.e., like people grouping together), I became aware of a forthcoming study that addresses this issue as it pertains to family life.

It’s entitled “Bonding alone: Familism, religion, and secular civic participation” by Young-Il Kim and W. Bradford Wilcox, and it’s published in the prestigious journal Social Science Research. This article finds that religious involvement actually prompts secular civic involvement (though its effect varies by type of family). Interesting and it runs counter to popular perceptions.

Here’s the abstract:

“This study examines the influence of familism, religion, and their interaction on participation in secular voluntary associations. We develop an insularity theory to explain how familism and religion encourage Americans to avoid secular civic participation. Using data from the first wave of the National Survey of Families and Households, this study finds that familism reduces participation in secular organizations. Moreover, religion moderates the effect of familism: specifically, religious involvement tends to increase the negative effect of familism on secular civic participation. Although religious involvement in and of itself fosters secular civic participation, strong familism tends to dampen positive impacts of religious involvement. For familistic individuals, religious congregations appear to reinforce their insularity within their immediate social circle and family.”

Further elaboration from the discussion section:

“People who hold traditional family ideology tend to form in-bound social networks revolving around religious congregations. This finding is particularly interesting in light of other studies indicating that familistic orientation promotes religious involvement. Thus, our study, combined with this earlier body of research, suggests that family-oriented culture has a divergent impact on religious institutions and secular organizations, fueling religious participation and dampening secular civic engagement. Indeed, our interaction models suggest that the familism–religious involvement interaction term is negative for secular engagement: that is, when familism is combined with greater involvement in religious congregations, its negative influence on secular engagement tends to be strengthened by the religious involvement. This aggravating effect is interesting because of the main effect of religious involvement on secular engagement was found to be positive. Consistent with previous research, religious involvement, particularly religious activities outside of religious services (e.g., a Bible study group, a church committee) may not only provide a training ground for the cultivation of civic skills that are transferable to nonreligious organizations, but also serve as a recruitment channel to secular voluntary associations. However, the effect of congregational participation tends to be smaller among familistic than nonfamilistic individuals.”

Social Similarity & Faith

I’ve been thinking a lot about social similarity lately, and maybe you have too (uh, yes, that was a joke). In many ways, social life is structured by similar people finding and interacting with each other. Sociologists call this homophily. This tendency of birds of a feather flocking together has been observed with many socially-relevant characteristics, including gender, social class, age, race, occupation and, of course, religion. As a result of it, we tend to spend more time with people who are similar to us than otherwise.

It’s not just that we that we like people who are more similar to us, but in addition, we become more like people who we like. We mimic how they posture themselves, and that in turn makes us more likable to them. (For a strategic application of this).

So… what are the implications of this for the practice of Christianity? Undoubtedly, it’s the reason we observe so much homogeneity within congregations. For example, churches tend to be segregated by race, with people of a particular racial and ethnic group congregating in a particular church. (This trend is changing over time, but it still manifests itself strongly). Even if a church is racially diverse, it will probably be economically homogenous.

Even within churches, we seek out people like us–by age, education, and other social characteristics.

Is this tendency to seek out and bond with similar others a good thing, bad thing, or neutral, from a Christian perspective that is. At this point, I would probably lean toward neutral. On one hand, it presents challenges in terms of diversity–for racially-diverse (and, really, just about anything-diverse) churches are difficult to maintain, especially when they are small. On the other hand, homophily creates strong social networks along which information and assistance can be passed.

This tension, between embracing diversity and taking advantage of similarity, shows itself with how churches and para-churches seek to grow. I know of a college ministry who organize their outreach efforts by race and ethnicity–with meetings specially targeting members of different racial and ethnic groups. The trick then, I suppose, is getting these different groups to interact as a whole. This type of approach–seeking homogeneity at smaller levels of organization and diversity at larger levels is one way of trying to get the best of both.

Perhaps simply being aware of the presence and power of homophily is important for all religious organizations.

Update on the Regnerus situation

Here’s an update on the brouhaha over Mark Regnerus’ study. As it should have, the complaint against Regnerus to the University of Texas was ruled to be without merit.

Here’s the opening paragraphs of the article:

“No formal investigation is warranted regarding allegations of scientific misconduct against a faculty member’s study that raised doubts about gay parenting, the University of Texas announced today.

The university conducted an inquiry to determine whether the accusations against associate professor Mark Regnerus concerning an article of his in the journal Social Science Research had merit and warranted a formal investigation. The allegations were leveled by freelance writer Scott Rosensweig, who uses the byline Scott Rose.

After consulting with a four-member advisory panel composed of senior university faculty members, the Office of the Vice President for Research concluded that there is insufficient evidence to warrant an investigation, the university said in a news release.

Provost and Executive Vice President Steven Leslie accepted the report on Tuesday and deemed the matter closed from an institutional perspective, UT said.”