(This is Bishop Bill’s longest post ever! TLDR: The Church is making the same mistakes that very smart people have made over the years. How is this possible if it is being lead by Christ?)
I just finished reading a book called “Blunder, Why Smart People Make Bad Decisions”. The book takes several examples from history of smart people making big mistakes, and then defines the cognitive trap that caused the blunder.
For example, the book talks about Thomas Edison going all in on direct current (DC) for power distribution, while Tesla showed that alternate current (AC) was the way to go. Today the whole world uses AC. Another example was the Untitled States involvement in Iran, both in the 1950s (installing the Shah) and the 1970s.
The first cognitive trap written about was “causation confusion” (he shortened it to causefusion), which is any misunderstanding about the causes of complex events. The example given was the Romans believed bad air from swamps was causing people to get sick, so they drained the swamps and people stopped getting sick. The name given to the illness was “bad air”, or in Italian “mala aria” We know it today as malaria, and it was not the swamps but the blood parasites transmitted by the mosquitos that lived in the swamps.
Today I see “causefusion” in the Church when a person goes to visit the bishop and says they are having a faith crises. The reasons are complex, but the Bishop tells them they need to pray and read the BofM. Another example is that Temple attendance is down. Complex reasons, but the solution is to build more temples so that it is easier to go.
The next cognitive trap is called “flatview” From the book:
A flatview is any rigid perspective that constricts our imagination to just one dimension. It’s thinking in a binary mode. We see people as either good or evil. We understand events as either positive or negative. We categorize others as either with us or against us. Since most complex problems typically contain shades of grey, the flatview trap limits our understanding of what we see, and therefore leads to simplistic solutions.Blunder page 73
The example in the book of flatview was the US overthrow of the Iranian prime minister in 1953 and installing the Shah. The US leader’s flatview was that because the Iranian leader wanted to keep more oil revenue for the Iranian people by nationalizing the oil industry, that they must be communist, and need to be stopped. The shades of grey was that they were not communist, they were nationalists, and wanted more say in their own natural resources.
The church examples just write themselves. Pres Hinckley said when asked about the foundational stories of the church: “Well, it’s either true or false. If it’s false, we’re engaged in a great fraud. If it’s true, it’s the most important thing in the world. Now, that’s the whole picture. It is either right or wrong, true or false, fraudulent or true.” He also said in a conference talk: “Each of us has to face the matter—either the Church is true, or it is a fraud. There is no middle ground. It is the Church and kingdom of God, or it is nothing.”. This flatview of us vs them permeates to this day, and is what is driving out members who would like a middle ground. Putting on my apologist view, it is separating the wheat from the tares, and we don’t want the middle people.
The next trap is called “Cure-Allism”
Cure-allism is an almost religious belief in a theory’s universal applicability. It occurs when we take a theory that has worked well in some cases and we apply it to seemingly similar cases where the theory fails.
Blunder page 107
Now of course, religion has as its bases “cure-allism” in that religions believe they can cure the worlds ills with a one size fits all solution. How is this working out? Christianity does not work in China or Arab countries very well. More specifically for the Mormon Church, the midwestern US way of doing things does not work so well in other countries. We’ve all heard the stories of kids in primary in foreign countries dressing up for “Pioneer day”. I think the Church is past that, but some signs of cultural cure-allism still persist in the Church today. White shirts and ties for men looked good at IBM in the 1960s, and grew to represent a conservative business minded person. So it worked for the Church in the 1970s when it was adopted as a universal uniform of the priesthood. White shirts don’t work so well in some developing countries today, and the church is just now learning this with letting missionaries where other that white shirts in some countries.
There is an old story of a woman of modest means wanting some nice jewelry for a special event, and borrowed a dazzling diamond necklace from a wealthy friend. She loses the necklace, and her and her husband buy a replacement on credit so they can return it to the friend. They then spend the next ten years working multiple jobs to pay it off. All the hard labor aged them both, and after 10 years the lady saw her old friend that had loaned her the expensive necklace. The friend no longer recognized her, and she explained that she had lost the necklace, replaced it, and had been working ten years to pay it off. Her friend was shocked, and told her the necklace was a fake and only worth a few dollars.
Both these ladies fell into a trap the author calls “Infomainia”. Both withheld vital information from the other that cost one of them dearly. The lending lady never told her friend the diamonds were fake, and the borrower never told her friend she lost the necklace. Either one of them could have stopped the ten years of misery if they had not withheld the information.
Informania is the information –based cognition trap, a condition marked by obsessive relationship to information. Informaniacs believe that if they can control the knowledge around them, they will profit.Blunder page 128
The author breaks down informania into two sides. One side is the “informisers”, those who hoard information, believing that sharing their data will undermine their position. The opposite side is the “infovoiders”, who believe that sealing themselves off from information will somehow be to their benefit.
The Church does both of these. On the miser side, they keep history, membership and financial data from their own members. The book perfectly sums up the position of church leaders on this: “At its core, informisering occurs when people convince themselves that their positions are threatened if knowledge is spread.” Church leaders think that if the world knew exactly how many members were actually active it would weaken their authority. If members knew how much money the church had, it could destroy faith.
On the other side, members have been instructed to only read from approved books and websites to learn about the Church. Avoid information that can undermine our position.
The last cognitive trap is called “Static Cling”. This is where people cling to a static image or belief about someone or something, even though the world is changing around them. One example given is the story of IBM, and how it almost went bankrupt because it clung to the static image that the world needed mainframe computers.
Today the world is changing. Does the church suffer from static cling? Does it need to change with the times, or is it right to cling to what worked in the past, even if it is leading the church to decline?
Is it fair to compare these mostly business and government examples to a religion? I say it is when said religion claims to be lead by direct revelation/inspiration from the Lord. If the leaders would come out and say “we are just trying our best, and we’ll make mistakes”, then I would be the first to defend them, and tell people to cut them some slack in their decision making. But when they make a bad move like the Proclamation of Exclusion for children of Gay couples—falling into several of the traps above—and then instead of owning up to the mistake, double down and claim it is revelation, I believe it is fair comparison.
Good reading and new vocabulary/ideas, thanks BishopBill.
Causefusion, Flatview, Cure-Allism, Infomainia, Static Cling are real phenomenon that we have all experienced. This contradicts all the countless lessons/readings/firesides/etc we received in church. No wonder that there is so much cognitive dissonance in the community.
Great thoughts. This relates well to the human (and institutional) tendency to want things to stay the same or, alternately, to return to the way we think things used to be. But there really never was such a “golden age.” Yet if there’s one constant in nature and the universe as a whole, it’s change.
This book should be required reading for the Q15. And yet, they have no shortage of advice from high-paid business consulting firms, survey firms, and other business/legal/marketing professionals who no doubt have provided similar advice and warnings. So why does the church change so slowly and continue to fall into these “blunders”? Of course there are a multitude of causal factors (I don’t want to fall into the “causefusion” blunder here), but in my opinion two big causal factors are the gerontocratic leadership structure and the inability to acknowledge error/fallibility of prior leaders and policies.
Although humans are living longer due to medical advances, our mental robustness and faculties are not keeping up (Greg Prince did a fascinating study on this with respect to church leaders in Dialogue some years ago). With respect to aging church leaders (in their 80s and 90s), it is very difficult for them, like most people that age, to change opinions and worldviews that have been cemented in their brains for decades. Witness the apostle advising David Archuleta that he just needs to “find the right girl” and that will fix him – which demonstrates an astounding ignorance of homosexuality. Compounding the age issue is the fact that most of the Q15 have held significant leadership positions for decades, in which their every word is taken as brilliantly inspired manna from heaven and no one dares question or challenge anything they say or opine on.
Then you have this second factor where leaders can’t point out past mistakes or errors, at least not explicitly. Is it because they fear that by doing so, they would undermine their own authority or cause the membership to question their callings and counsel? When will they trust the members as peers, who can handle ambiguity, uncertainty and complexity with respect to historical events, theological issues, or, say, church finances – as opposed to treating us as children who must be spoon-fed simple-minded black-and-white doctrine and protected from difficult truths and complexities? Does their advanced age contribute to their seeing themselves in a parent-child relationship with the membership as opposed to a peer-to-peer relationship? I believe that by maintaining gerontocratic leadership structure combined with the failure to acknowledge error and fallibility, the church leaders are doing irreversible damage to the church in terms of its reputation and loss of members.
@Bryce Cook. Amen, you nailed it.
I’ll add that my experience with high end consultants (never having been one but working side by side with McKinsey, Deloitte, etc) is that they do exactly what they are paid to do. In other words if the Q15 are paying a consulting firm to figure out how to keep the church financially healthy for example, they’ll do just that, within the constraints provided by the church. In my current company we had a team of about 10 McKinsey consultants charging huge fees and when we decided to end their services I naively asked them if they could share some observations how the department might run better. They said that’s not what we were hired to tell you, but if you want to pay us we’ll analyze the department and tell you (for a large fee).
My guess is the Q 15 is not really interested in what isn’t working because by definition they are correct and don’t need that feedback for the reasons you outlined.
Bryce, I agree this book aught to be required reading for all GAs, but maybe we should broaden it to all church members should read the book. Read it both to recognize our own blunders, but also to help recognize when leaders might be wrong.
If we as members got more informed about how smart and even religiously sincere people have these tendencies to blunder, then we might be able to see the blunders for what they are and learn to trust our own experience and inspiration more. The church as a whole might do better if it is easier for people to recognize and name leadership errors. It is just so much easier to trust your own judgment when you can pinpoint exactly where your leader is going astray. It might turn “our leaders are fallible” into something we can all start to see. For example, I know a woman who married a closet gay, and after a few children he came out as gay. He left her devastated for a man. Yet, when one of those children came out as gay, she insisted her gay son should marry a nice girl because that was what the church recommended. I was floored that she learned nothing from her own experience and trusted old straight men more than her own experience that mixed orientation marriages don’t work. Maybe if she had been able to say to herself “church leaders are applying “cure-allism” and thinking that what made them happy makes everybody happy,” she could have accepted that her own experience with her gay husband being miserable and leaving and making her and her children miserable, was *real.* But she pretended her own life never happened because she couldn’t recognize leadership error.
But she had her own blunder in this story. She couldn’t accept that leaders can be wrong because she was so black or white that leaders can’t be wrong. She made the blunder of “flatview “ that leaders are always 100% correct. So, she needed to recognize her own blunder that kept her blind to leadership blunder.
The joke says, “you can’t cure stupid,” but I think books like this could help cure stupid, at least somewhat. I know for myself, just being aware of how and why people make mistakes has helped me not make so many stupid mistakes. As a parent, I have had to slap myself many times with the cure-allism when I try what worked on child #1 on child #2 and it is a dismal failure, or want to give my children advice according to what worked in my life. And so often in life, I have to remind myself that the middle ground is alway bigger than the extremes at either end, that there is just more grey than black or white. Just knowing that this is how people fall into the ditch can often keep oneself from falling into the ditch. So, my view is this book should be used starting in kindergarten to make the attempt to cure stupid.
@ Bushop Bill Excellent post and brilliant assessment of how the ideas in this book relate to the problems within the church.
@ Bryce Cook – I agree with everything you say. It’s been interesting to observe in recent decades that several church presidents were experiencing levels of dementia before they died. And as far as I know this was never announced publicly. Word would gradually filter out among some circles or after they had died. We were led to believe they were still at the helm. What is the point of that? To protect us? Not having a retirement age for ‘prophets’ keeps some of the younger and perhaps more vibrant voices having an opportunity to run the ship until they also become part of the gerontology problem.
Great thoughts…great post. If Church members applied critical thinking to their Church experience and perspective, we’d probably have a much different culture. I’m always amazed when smart / accomplished members utterly refuse to even consider possibilities that run counter to official narratives. Instead, we hear that “I choose to believe” or “just have faith”. It’s so interesting to me how some folks can compartmentalize their thought process: critical thinkers in most areas of their lives but totally closed when discussing the Church.
I like what Hugh Nibley said (in an interview) when he was asked how he felt about the leadership of the church. He said (as best as I can recall):
“I feel great about it. And, of course, as you know, Jesus Christ is at the head of the church. And don’t worry; he knows what he’s doing.”
Toad: Regarding high-priced consultants like McKinsey, Deloitte, and Goldman Sachs.
I’m currently reading “Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World” by Anand Giridharadas. He contends those firms are actually in no position to help solve the world’s problems because they are part of the elites responsible for systemic injustice in the first place. The answers they come up with may or may not help the poor or disadvantaged, for example, but you can be sure the folks on top will be rewarded in some way. Institutional leaders, religious or otherwise, don’t want the system overthrown just, at best, managed to ensure the survival of the institution. Put another way, corporations want to be led by competent business managers not prophets or revolutionaries.
Another issue that I suppose I would put in the cure-all category is the individual use of the atonement as the antidote to all suffering. Church leaders, and those who think in a binary way like them, don’t feel any urgency or sometimes need to relieve the suffering of others when the suffering is caused by church teachings, doctrine, culture, policies, etc. The one answer to everything is that God will provide, bring peace, and heal people. So it doesn’t matter if someone suffers in a mixed-orientation marriage, or if someone suffers life-long depression or self-worth issues, or has suicidal thoughts, or stays in an abusive relationship, etc because of the church.
What matters is that the Savior will always make up for the church’s shortcomings. There will always be shortcomings because God’s church is run by humans. But everything will be made right in eternity and life is but a small moment.
How unsurprising it is that those who suffer the most because of church teachings don’t share much in common with the quorum of the 12 (straight, white, affluent heterosexual men). I’m not suggesting that church leaders do not suffer or that one demographic has a monopoly on suffering. That’s not true and too simplistic. But we can see a clear pattern in harmful soul-destroying teachings over the years that are specific to women, people of color, poorer people, or LGBT people. Just because people can find strength and healing from God doesn’t mean God’s church should be their cause of suffering in the first place, prolong their suffering, increase their suffering, etc.
Jesus didn’t come to uphold the current religious institutions of his day. He radically to quote Pres. Monson didn’t see “a problem to be solved as more important than a person to be loved.” The church’s true problem is maintaining its own legitimacy and longevity, sometimes at the cost of its members health and happiness.
Proclamation of Exclusion?
“What you say about others, says a lot about yourself.”
I’ve read this book, and it’s really great at helping us to avoid some of the most common human frailties in decision making. I agree it should be required reading for all, at least by college age. Having said that, it’s incredibly easy to see these flaws in others, and not so easy in ourselves, which is of course why the book was written. And yes, I see evidence of all of these flaws in the Church, as Bryce points out, the Church is far more prone to error than other institutions because of our leadership structure. Any autocracy / oligarchy with very little regulation and oversight is. Add in the age factor, and it only compounds it.