Does Christianity, Like Not Eating a Marshmallow, Make You More Successful in Life?

A longstanding theme in the sociology of religion is how religious beliefs and practices affect one’s place in society. I’ve been reading lately some psychological studies of self-control, and it seems that self-control might prove to be an important mechanism by which Christianity influences its adherents’ place in society.

Having high levels of self-control has all sorts of benefits (at least, that’s what I’ve heard). It helps people make good impressions on others, get more education, do better in the workplace, and avoid crime.

Previously, some researchers assumed that self-control was a static characteristic, perhaps developed in early childhood, and indeed childhood self-control levels are predict future success in life. This was illustrated in Mischel’s famous marshmallow study in which children were given the choice of eating a marshmallow at that moment or waiting five minutes for a second marshmallow. The marshmallow was placed in front of them, so to get a second one, they had to exert self-control for five minutes by not eating it. The kids who could wait ended up being described as more competent and having higher SAT scores.

Another view of self-control has come into play, and that is self-control is a muscle. It can be worn out from overuse (again, that’s what I’ve heard), just like a muscle can, and it can also be built up over time with practice. Studies have found that simple self-control exercises can make a long-term difference, exercises such as always sitting up straight, refraining from &%@!*^% cursing, and brushing your teeth with your left hand. What makes this potentially powerful is that these exercises provide a straightforward means of improving one’s life—by developing greater self-control.

Here’s where the practice of Christianity comes in. A dominant theme in Christian teaching is the practice of self-control. Pray regularly, read the Bible, attend church, watch how you talk, watch what you look at, be loving to everyone, and so on. The Bible even identifies self-control as one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5).

In short, being an active Christian means daily working out the self-control muscle, and so it follows that following the faith produces a higher level of self-control. This, in turn, is associated with all sorts of other good things. Put succinctly:

Practicing Christianity = increased self-control = greater success in society

To be clear, I’m not implying that other religions or belief systems are unrelated to self-control. Also, I recognize that Christianity redefines what success means, and so perhaps Christians with strong self-control don’t pursue “worldly” success as vigorously as they would without faith. I also recognize that self-control is not the only linkage between religion and social status, and that others may accentuate it or counteract it. Nonetheless, this mechanism has interesting implications for the effect of Christianity on general effectiveness and even one’s place in the world.

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.

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.

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.


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