Friday, November 8, 2013

Restrictive Church Rules (TFS part 2)

I am reading Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman. In this series I will summarize key parts of the book and supply some comments and reflections on the material.

Part I: Two Systems
Chapter 3: The Lazy Controller

Summary: Paying attention is costly. Experiments supporting this show that exerting willpower is costly, self-control is tiring, there is ego depletion, and increased cognitive control is correlated with increased intelligence.

My Thoughts: This line of research is interesting and compelling. It attempts to explain why we sometimes make bad decisions in a very economic way: focus and attention are scarce resources that have to be allocated! 

What about those church rules? Maybe you remember you Sunday School teacher or your parents giving the following advice: don't put yourself in a position to be tempted (the "don't do anything fun" rule). Some denominations go as far as banning lots of activities that are not sinful in and of themselves, but can easily lead to sinful behavior if engaged in "too much" (e.g. drinking, or even dating). People (esp. kids/teens) often laugh -- what, you think we have no self control and don't know what's right and wrong? Well, not necessarily, but your will power gets depleted the more often you are in novel, challenging situations. And then you will do things you regret. It may not even be regret later -- it could be regret as you make the bad choices, and you know on net you are worse off, but you keep going anyway because you have no willpower left to stop.

The church advice is interesting because it acknowledges physical limitations and the psychology of the situation (breakdowns in rationality, some would say; simply acknowledging an often overlooked budget constraint, says me). But it also takes advantage of rational thinking: You (or at least your elders) KNOW if you put yourself in a bad situation your will power could get depleted leading you to make decisions that make you worse off. So don't put yourself in those positions in the first place! It's costly (you don't go to the fun party), but on net you are better off because of it (you didn't crash your parents car after succumbing to peer pressure and binge drinking -- a big plus). The rule is taught, thought about, and learned (maybe even legislated!) in a setting emotionally far removed from the situations in which it needs to be implemented. That's a rule that comes from straight-up, cold-blooded, forward-looking, rational thinking.

And here's a bonus -- once you learn the rule, it's much less costly to implement since you don't have to reason it out every time. But it becomes a heuristic that might lead you astray in other situations -- a System 1 bias.... Around and around we go.

Some smart people cite these ridiculous, "arbitrary" rules as reasons why they leave a particular church (sample: people I have known). But, the last result Kahneman presents in this chapter (control is correlated with intelligence) sheds a little light on why that's a trend (besides the obvious answer that it's not a trend and I am biased in my perception of the trend -- see the next post). Rules taught are tuned for "most people" or people "on average." In this case, it's for people with average will power and control. If smarter people have more will power to allocate, then these rules will be much more restrictive, and less good for them, than average people. It will be optimal for them to break more of these rules in practice and exert more self-control. It's also optimal for them to NOT encourage others who have less self control to break the rule.

Food for Thought:
1. "I don't buy bags of potato chips even though I know everything is fine in moderation. I can't eat just one. In fact, I know I will eat the whole bag in one sitting."

2. Alice: "I'm happy the FDA is about to ban trans-fats. Now I won't be tempted to eat so many doughnuts."
Bob: "I love trans-fatty donuts! They aren't as oily and taste better than other doughnuts. Sometimes I want to eat unhealthily (even though I know I may not live quite as long); let me eat the enjoyable, unhealthy doughnut I want!"

3. Who would be better off in a society where church rules are legally enforced? What if you could costlessly move to a society or city where your preferred church rules are enforced; would you?

4. How many difficult decisions can you make in a day before becoming too tired to make any more?

5. "If it's immoral then it should be illegal."

6. "If it's illegal then it's immoral."

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