A few years ago, after my mission memoir was published, I was interviewed for Dialogue along with fellow author Roger Terry who wrote Bruder. I was asked why I hadn’t spent more time in my memoir explaining my personal beliefs, looking back at my young thoughts and explaining how they now differed. That was something I noticed he did in his book as did Craig Harline in Way Below the Angels. I had a few reasons for wanting to do something different. First, knowing that very few women served during my era, I wanted to present the experience as I lived it, not as I see it now as an adult. Second, unlike most Elders, I was an adult when I served, and my perspectives didn’t change quite as radically. I didn’t go out as a child and come back as an adult, like most men seem to do, at least in that time frame. Lastly, I am incredibly skeptical of the explanations we give for why we believe the things we do.
As I’ve quoted before, Jonathan Haidt refers to beliefs as a rider on an elephant. The rider explains why the elephant is going where it goes, but the rider is not really in control, and the explanations are post hoc justifications to explain what the rider thinks is going on, not what is really going on. So it is when we try to explain our beliefs. We come up with something that sounds good to us, but if we try to get below the surface, most of these explanations fall apart. They are all made up, so why wouldn’t they? We don’t really know why we do what we do.
Sometimes we accidentally type a different word than we intend. This occasionally happens when I’m listening to something or lost in thought about something unrelated while also typing. Those words and thoughts will accidentally show up in the thing I’m typing, and I only catch it later when reading through it. We sometimes call it a Freudian slip, if the word we say by accident appears to be psychologically revealing, but sometimes it’s less meaningful than that. Just an accidental insertion of a parallel internal monologue.
But have you ever done something that you really couldn’t explain away so easily? Behaved in a way that you thought was atypical or unlike who you think you are?
I talked to a friend of mine who has never been a member of the church, someone I was close friends with in high school. He was reading my mission memoir which I had given a link to on Facebook. He was baffled, reading about this experience I had that was so completely foreign to his concept of who I was. He said it was like reading a book about a stranger, someone he didn’t know at all. Where was the me who was full of attitude and anti-authoritarian? The cool girl? The rebel? As I pointed out, I was the same person, but in completely different contexts. But maybe I really was two people. Maybe I wasn’t as cool as he thought I was. Maybe I was way cooler than my fellow missionaries thought I was. Maybe both were true.
People whose brains have been divided between hemispheres, disconnecting the communication between both sides of their brain, may suffer from something called alien hand syndrome, also known as Dr. Strangelove syndrome :
Film buffs may remember that the title character of the classic 1964 dark comedy Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb had what looked like alien hand syndrome. Dr. Strangelove’s hand would perform what appeared to be purposeful acts but were in fact unintentional.
In a report documented in the medical literature, a man’s alien hand started undoing the buttons on his shirt as his other hand buttoned them. In other case reports, patients have said they awoke from sleep to find their hands choking them.
In another case, a 56-year-old patient recovering from a stroke reported that his right hand was behaving of its own accord—flipping light switches, grabbing papers, and batting away his left hand.https://www.brainandlife.org/articles/what-is-alien-hand-syndrome
Because we don’t suffer from alien hand syndrome (which can also occur in legs, just FYI in case your legs start doing weird stuff against your will), we have the illusion that we are in control, that we are the driver, not the rider, of the elephant. We attribute quirks like typos to inattention or muscle memory. We tell ourselves a story that maintains the illusion of control, that we are who we think we are, who we’ve told ourselves we are.
Fast and testimony meeting seems to me to be an exercise in crystalizing our own personal narrative, interpreting our actions and observations into a faith-promoting narrative. We’ve been told that a testimony is found in the bearing thereof, and there’s a psychological reason for that. The more we tell a story a certain way, the truer it feels to us. The facts examined in a testimony can be interpreted in many different ways. For example, a non-believer can look at the Word of Wisdom and scoff at it, considering it a narrow-minded way to judge others, not based on actual scientific benefit, something to keep people inside the community and isolated from outside influences. A believer can look at it as a confirmation of divine intervention, a revealed health code from God to His children for their benefit, a higher standard of living. The story we tell, how often we tell it, and to whom we tell it, all make it easier to continue to see things that way and harder to see them another way. The more we tell a story, the more we believe it. The more real it becomes.
- Have you ever changed your story about yourself?
- Have you wondered why you did something that didn’t seem like you at all?
- Have you observed that you behaved differently in different contexts?
 Best name for a mental disorder that I’ve ever heard, hands, er, hand, down.
Fascinating thoughts and questions! It has been a long time since I’ve been in touch with the academic psychology literature, but my memory is that you’ve touched on what’s sometimes been a core debate there. Is there really such a thing as personality, meaning a stable tendency to behave certain ways and not others? Or do we just observe consistency in ourselves and others because we’re often exposed to the same types of situations over and over?
I don’t have any good answers for your questions, but I’ve definitely seen how the telling of a story settles it in our minds as having happened a particular way and meaning a particular thing and having particular causes. I recall noticing a missionary companion telling small stories of our interactions with people to members of the ward we were serving in, and how with the telling, each story took on a more settled form. I also wonder if journal writing (although it doesn’t seem to be talked about anymore) gives us a chance, like you said with F&T meeting, to tell our stories and put them down in a way that feels coherent and meaningful.
It seems like this discussion is also very relevant to faith crises. If a person has lived their whole life in the Church, and has interpreted particular experiences in meaningful ways, but then one day finds themselves not believing in the Church anymore, what do they do with all their memories of experiences? I feel like this is a common dilemma that I’ve both seen and experienced. Do I still attribute things that happened to me to God when I’m not sure I believe in God anymore? I know it’s a common inclination to just want to throw everything out and decide it was all mind tricks and elevation, but I wonder if there’s value in just holding the contradictory interpretations together. I don’t know.
In the immortal words of George Costanza:
“Jerry, just remember, it’s not a lie if you believe it.”
I’ve often wondered above F&T meetings. Isn’t it just some sort of self inoculation? And aren’t the memorized missionary discussions some sort of brainwashing of the young missionaries. Repeating the same thing over and over. Unfortunately, the discussions I sort of memorized in the mid-1960’s were filled with questionable info. And we were encouraged to use salesman tactics to get in the house.
I think we all perform differently depending upon the group or audience. At home we are different than we are at work or at church or at Rotary club or golfing. But maybe that’s just me.
“Have you observed that you behaved differently in different contexts?”
This is one of the many reasons I no longer enjoy attending church. I realized after spending 18 sweet months with the ability to mute the sacrament speaker on zoom church that I am done pretending to believe and pandering to patriarchy. I acted way different at church than I did to my friends and family-smiling, shaking hands with misogynistic and homophonic individuals I wouldn’t ever support in any other environment.
If reading scriptures and saying a prayer was enough of a substitute for the sacrament for my elderly widowed grandmother, it’s enough for me too.
Yes, I’ve behaved differently in different contexts. I don’t know many people who don’t (although my 9 yr old is pretty much himself everywhere … for better and for worse!).
Part of me behaving differently is I’m a people pleaser and I don’t like making people uncomfortable and I want to be liked. So while I don’t think I’m ever “fake”, I definitely self-censor more around some groups or more carefully phrase my statements (although I definitely have some key areas where I still stand up for things and have worked to get more comfortable doing this – but I choose my battles to spend my social capital and emotional energies wisely).
It was also really helpful for me to learn that “fawning” is a trauma response. I always get mad at myself for fawning during situations where I’m dealing with a male authority (especially a male religious authority). But realizing this is a trauma response has helped me (1) avoid triggering situations where I can, (2) be better prepared, and (3) not be so hard on myself if later I wish I’d done or said things differently because I just am not at my full capacity when I’m in that mode.
I would be curious to know whether women are more likely to fit themselves to conform to expectations about how they will behave than men are. Of course I think all humans do it, but I think women may be more likely to have learned to do it as a survival mechanism when we generally have less power in a situation and more depends on people “liking” us.
Fine post. Food for thought. I have really enjoyed Haidt’s books and writing, but I’m not sure I quite buy into his elephant and rider theory. Well, it’s a metaphor actually, and so striking a metaphor that it may be too attractive. It may describe some people, but not everyone. Not to be crass, but if I proposed the theory “everyone has brown hair,” and then replied to critics who point out there are folks with blond hair and reddish hair, “Well, it describes a good percentage of human hair accurately” … well, you can see why “describing some people accurately” isn’t much of a claim. As far as psychological metaphors go, I’d put more stock in Plato’s metaphor of the charioteer driving two horses, one good and noble (representing reason and the urge to truth) and one unruly (our irrational and impulsive and rather amoral side). The charioteer (that’s us humans) struggles with those two competing horses.
Which isn’t to say lots of people don’t believe things without understanding why they believe them. Propaganda is depressingly effective. Trump’s Big Lie (and his many little lies) seem strangely persuasive for a lot of people. But we’re not all weak-minded dimwits. Perhaps “know thyself” is really more of an imperative than we generally acknowledge. The alternative might be to end up as the rider on an elephant. That might be where some people end up, I just don’t buy that it’s human nature, a psychological paradigm we are all stuck with and unwittingly living out.
I wonder why we can be so different politically? I was councillor to a Bishop who went off to BYU a conservative, and came back progressive, after a history of politics class.
People seem willing to believe lies and vehemently (jan 6).
I am on the left because I believe we need to care for the less fortunate, that capitalism needs to be moderated, that there should be no poor among us.
I do not understand the opposing view. I do not comprehend how any issue can convince an intelligent individual to vote for Trump.
//Have you ever changed your story about yourself?//
Yes! I used to be the star of my story as a faithful, devout woman who truly loved God and expressed that love through obedience. I had a strong testimony, etc. etc. etc.
Anyway, my story now is that I was raised knowing that gaining the approval of men (my father in particular and the Church leaders in general) was the most important thing I could ever do. Obedience was the road to success in gaining approval and I was good at it. As Elisa pointed out, fawning is a trauma response.
I saw a pithy saying somewhere on the Internet: “You weren’t a well-behaved child, you had anxiety and were terrified of conflict.” That sums it up for me pretty well.
//Have you observed that you behaved differently in different contexts?//
When my life was about seeking male approval, I did. I exhibited the behaviors men wanted to see when I was around men – faithful, willing to serve, testifying of my blessed life. In private, I was depressed and suicidal. Faithful women are not supposed to feel such feelings; we are expected to feel the joy of obedience and so I was ashamed of myself. Anyway, as I’ve overcome that trauma, my behavior is consistent across contexts. I mean, of course there are social differences in different contexts, but I’m not putting up a facade anymore.
But IS there any free will at all?
@Elisa – if I wrote as well as you my response would mirror what you wrote. Case in point – I recently interviewed for my temple recommend. I was given the recommend but came away feeling discouraged because the questions leave no room for nuance or doubt. It doesn’t matter that nothing has changed about my moral character but I can’t enter a holy place if I don’t answer those questions in a certain way. I’m not sure if I’m angry at myself for fudging or at the church for being so controlling and manipulative. I wouldn’t care so much but it’s more about family expectations. So here I am – still not living authentically.
OP – “The more we tell a story, the more we believe it. The more real it becomes.”
I have seen this principle reveal itself many times right here at W&T. Actually, right here in this post! DaveB and Geoff-Aus just proved it. Not sure about DaveB, but I have noticed Geoff do it many, many times.
@DaveB’s story that he reinforces by re-stating it: “Trump’s Big Lie (and his many little lies) seem strangely persuasive for a lot of people. But we’re not all weak-minded dimwits.”
@Geoff-Aus’s story that he reinforces by re-stating it: “People seem willing to believe lies and vehemently (jan 6)” and “I do not comprehend how any issue can convince an intelligent individual to vote for Trump.”
Forbes Magazine September 24, 2021:
“After more than five months of counting and millions of dollars spent, an election audit of more than 2 million Arizona ballots has delivered disappointing results for former President Donald Trump and his supporters, concluding he lost the state to President Joe Biden by an even bigger margin than the final vote count that the state certified in the 2020 election.”
BTW this was a Republican recount financed with $7M Republican money that was so monumentally f’d-up there’s no telling what the actual totals really were. The only question at this late pt in the game is whether those long-suffering retirees of Sun City, not to mention Sun City West, will pony up enough pension dollars to do it all over again. As for myself, AZ born&raised, I’m popping some popcorn & finding a comfy chair. .
Bwbarnett: your comment is ironic given that Trump (and other propagandists) know very well that telling a lie enough times increases belief in it. DaveB and Geoff Aus are not the ones falling for it, unless you mean they are falling for the idea that anyone who voted for Trump is an idiot. If so, I suppose you are right that any narrative that simplistically vilifies the other side is probably not accurate.
Still, guys, can we please not turn this post into another referendum on Trump but instead try to stick to the topic of understanding why we do what we do when our actions are incomprehensible to us at times? (Like p I am popping my popcorn to see what happens, but it is easier to trick someone than it is to convince them they were tricked!)
Janey: I love the quote! I will be using that from now on. There was a story in my mission memoir when my second trainee was getting upset and stressed out about rules (I was never really exacting on such things), which was tough because we were in a difficult area that was downright hostile, and it was during the holiday season when there wasn’t much to do and the city kind of shut down. I decided to help her out I would try to be exacting with the rules, and not only was I miserable, but I made everyone else miserable. In fairness, it only lasted maybe a few days. A fellow missionary suggested the key was to find joy in following the rules, but that just isn’t how I’m wired. I don’t find joy in doing things that are dumb that were devised by people who don’t know my situation and whose advice doesn’t really apply. I have to do what I think is best to feel good about my life and my choices. That’s the lesson I got from that. There is literally no joy in following the letter of the law for its own sake. You have to at least think you are making choices (although I too am skeptical about how much free will we really have).
For years republicans have been claiming they will protect your guns from the democrats who will take them.
They have also been claiming they can fix abortion.
Then you have trump who before the election says he will not accept the result of the election unless he wins. That means he does not accept democracy. He wants to end democracy. He implimented a plan to overcome the election result, and what would be left if he succeeded?
People voted against Biden because they believed the republican story about guns, and abortion, and seemed to think their ideas were more important than ending democracy.
You infer I am deluded because I think this is a big problem for America and consequently the free world if America becomes a dictatorship.
With the reports on Jan 6th committee and the possibility trump could run again, and more than half of members likely to vote for dictatorship. Surely this is a real and big problem we should be trying to discuss/address?
Or perhaps someone can reassure me that I have something wrong in my understanding?
Geoff – Aus, Please don’t continue your dislike of U.S. Latter-day Saints — the good book recommends love for your neighbors, even when you judge them to be imperfect. After all, as wondered in the original posting, they are merely blameless riders on the elephant, right? Haidt might suggest that riders on the ass are similarly not in control of their journey.
ji, LDS who profess & demonstrate fealty to a thrice-divorced, porn-star renting, multiply-bankrupt CASINO OWNER are not “blameless riders on the elephant” I don’t care what the OP says. How much more blatant does “wrong choice” have to be, horns & a forked tongue?
@pi – I’m LDS and I don’t “demonstrate fealty to a thrice-divorced, porn-star renting, multiply-bankrupt CASINO OWNER”. At least I think I don’t, who is this guy you refer to? I must have missed this one. Ultimately my fealty is to Jesus Christ.
@Angela – I appreciate your request to not turn this post into another referendum on Trump. In other posts where little jabs are made by the likes of DaveB and Geoff, and where it seems to me that the jabs are totally unrelated to the post, I have just tried my best to ignore them. But in this post, the jabs actually proved one of the points of the OP, so I decided to point it out.
It’s fine to “tell stories” to oneself I suppose. I suspect all of us do it as the OP may be suggesting. I just object to the way some people here “tell stories” and in the process demean, ridicule, belittle others. For example, if I wanted to make myself feel better/justified/whatever that I am still a TBM, what would the non-TBM’s think if I used phrases like (and I’m paraphrasing here not necessarily quoting) “anyone who would leave the church is a dimwit”, “I don’t understand why any intelligent person would not believe the BoM is true”, etc.
PS. I don’t actually believe those example phrases. W&T has actually helped me better understand the reasons behind people’s decisions in this matter.
@Di, I’ve heard people say that the Church essentially encourages us to lie because no one can really actually live up to all of the things and so we lie to get by. Now, I think that’s true of a lot of institutions that have a strong level of conformity and requirements, so not putting blame squarely on the Church or suggesting that it’s uniquely bad, but I do think its demands for conformity and obedience encourage inauthentic living from an early age.
This is such a fascinating topic. When I went through my faith crisis I was so isolated from other questioners/non-believers/progmos that it felt like a very singular experience. Stepping away from the church felt like a monumentally heavy personal decision.
After finally connecting with others who have gone through the same thing, though, I now see I’m a drop of water in a giant wave of members pouring out of the church as a result of a vast array of external factors. I feel like every other week I find out about someone else I went to HS with, or went to BYU with, or served a mission with, or worked with professionally who has also left the church. I now wonder if it really was a personal decision at all! Could it have happened any other way? Or are my beliefs out of my control like the elephant in the OP? I honestly don’t know.
One other thought… if a person is “telling a story” and part of the telling includes the ridicule or belittlement of others, shouldn’t that be a red flag that either the validity of the story is suspect or the intentions/motivations of the teller are suspect – or both?
“Have you observed that you behaved differently in different contexts?”
Yes. I act differently around family that know I’m no longer TBM vs those that don’t. I’m trying to be authentic, but I still have to protect myself. And because accounting attracts so many Mormons, I still choose to act differently at work in different situations.
Kirkstall: That is so interesting. Yes I agree. In the last month I had three different people who follow me on Instagram reach out to me inquiring about my faith based on noticing what I like on social media. They reached out because they were stepping away and looking for a friend. It’s starting to happen all over (my wife disagrees with me on this as she thinks the level of disengagement is always steady and we just notice it more now that we swim in this particular pool). And to that point, I suppose my leaving was maybe not a choice at all. I’m a victim of circumstance; I blame the internet =).
Ji, I find it amazing that I describe America voting for dictatorship, and your take is I don’t like american members. My emotion is concern not dislike.
If members vote for trump, who does not accept the result of elections, they are voting to overthrow democracy and install a dictator. What part of that statement is a story, and where is anyone belittled? Can someone reassure me that that is not likely to happen?
@Elisa – that’s interesting what you said about some folk thinking the church actually encourages lying – even if that’ probably unintentional. My brother and sister in law are both temple workers with 4 children out of the church and one who is gay and married to his husband. I think k it was this nephew’s journey that had a lot to do with my own evolving questioning of church policies. We recently had a discussion on my angst about the recommend questions and she said that one of her priesthood leaders suggested that those who have the most difficulty with temple recommend questions are those that are most honest and have the highest integrity. It was a sort of pat myself on the back moment (haha) but in the end didn’t make the process any easier.
Are people pouring out of the church or are variations occuring which were impossible previously?
I’m afraid I act differently at church because the last few years have taught me that many self-described “devout LDS” are motivated more by politics than they are statements from the First Presidency. These pseudo devout are more loyal to Trump than to church leadership. And they will attack you for being heterodox in any way for vocalizing dissent from Trumpism.
This does tie in with the OP:
One of the factors that makes me even more confused about people with conservative thinking comes from having listened to Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity. RL preceded Fox cable news. KSL carried SH for years. I’d listen to the news, weather, and traffic reports in the am, then SH was on later when I drove somewhere.
Both were so full of themselves, so one-sided, so clearly manipulative (particularly contrasted with NPR, which I chose to listen to).
I am still stymied in trying to understand how something that I find negative value in can be so persuasive to broad swaths of people. I know many followers are good people.
I once had a visiting teacher who faithfully visited me at my home EVERY month. The last time she came, I’d placed a bumper sticker on the inside of my front door with a magnet: “I’m a Mormon, and I’m voting for Obama”. (It was not aimed at her, it was for myself.) After that, she dutifully called me every month. We are still friends, and there is much I genuinely admire about her. Apparently, I’d crossed a line.
It’s almost as if people are somehow wired differently.
Geoff-Aus, I actually agree with your distaste for the last U S. president and crybaby-in-chief and wanna-be dictator. But your continual broad-brush condemnation of U.S. Latter-day Saints generally seems unfair to me, and your insertion of Trump into wholly unrelated threads seems to indicate an unhealthy fixation.
Maybe it was the use of an elephant in the original posting? If so, I suppose Haidt would say riders on an ass are equally powerless. I don’t think Haidt was using the elephant as a political metaphor. 😉
I am sympathetic to Angela’s plea in her comment June 23 4:10am.