(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.”[1]  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.”[2]. 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.

Your Thoughts?

[1] PBS interview 2007    

[2] General Conference 2003