Monday, October 1, 2012

About Confession

Let me point out, again, the quote from Tom Moran in his article about the Catholic church (my bolding):
I was born into a devout Catholic family, the fifth of nine children. And one of my earliest memories is learning the catechism from my father, a sales executive who was in the habit of going to church every day before work.
He read me stories about the adventures of a boy who was nicknamed “Raggie” because his family was too poor to buy new clothes. Each story had the same basic lesson — good Catholics look after those in need, just as Jesus did. And there is no shame in being poor.
Sign me up. I memorized the prayers, received the sacraments and felt ecstatically cleansed after monthly confessions. I was all in.

And let me quote from the RSA video I posted here a week or so ago, "The Truth About Dishonesty,"  too, while I'm at it.   The video is from a talk by Dan Ariely, "one of the world's leading voices on human motivation and behaviour." There are some really funny anecdotes about the small-scale cheating people do - and about our ability to rationalize it.  (For instance:  an illegal music downloader rationalizes his actions by saying that the bands want their music to be heard, and that he wasn't going to buy the recording anyway so nobody's being hurt, and that the label companies are evil, anyway.  As Ariely notes, he's making himself into a "freedom fighter" rather than somebody who illegally downloads music.)
So we asked, "What would get people to cheat less"?  "What would get rationalization to go down?"   "To [get people to] kind of scrutinize their own actions?"....

We went to UCLA and we asked about 500 students to try and recall the 10 Commandments.  But after trying to recall the 10 Commandments, when we gave them the same opportunity to be dishonest - nobody was dishonest.  In fact, even when we take self-declared atheists and we ask them to swear on the Bible - when we give them a chance to cheat, they don't cheat. 

So this suggests that there is something about reminders, that the moment we think about morality, even if it's not our own moral code, all of a sudden we are kind of supervising ourselves to a higher degree.  We're more thoughtful about our own actions....

We also looked at the Catholic Confession.  We went to talk to Catholic priests, and we said, "From an economic perspective, we don't understand Confession.  Please explain it to us."  We said, "If you can confess and be absolved, shouldn't you cheat more?  Shouldn't you cheat on the way to Confession?"  The priest said, no.

So here are 3 theories of how Confession might work.  One theory is that you think to yourself,  "I want to rob this convenience store - but I'll have to confess.  It will be unpleasant, the priest will think badly of me."  And this added cost makes the whole thing not worthwhile; we don't find any evidence for that.

Another possibility is like the 10 Commandments experiment I told you about.  You come out of Confession and you feel good and wonderful about yourself, and for a little while longer, you want to keep that feeling of being good.  We find some evidence for this.

But the most interesting version is the following.  When we give people hundreds of opportunities to steal and to cheat over time, what we find is that people are slightly dishonest: balancing "feeling good about myself, cheating a little; feeling good, cheating a little."  And then at some point, many people switch and start cheating all the time.  And we call this switching point the "What the Hell?" effect.  It turns out that we don't have to be 100% good to think of ourselves as good.  But if at some point, you don't think of yourself as good, you might as well enjoy it.....

Now, if people cheat a lot all the time, why would they ever stop?  If you think you're going to Hell, in the Catholic version, why would you ever stop?  But the Catholic Confession might have actually stumbled on this - something that might be a really good idea:  if you are cheating a lot, maybe you need to be able to open a new page.

So we did these experiments.  We do a non-Catholic kind of Confession, where people cheat a little bit, or they cheat a lot.  We give them a chance to say what they have done badly, we give them a chance to ask for forgiveness from whatever spirits they believe in - and what happens after they do these two actions together?  Cheating goes down.  Opening a new page does seem to be very successful - and this by the way is something I think religion figured out, and the question is, how do we put it into civic society?....People will transgress; there's nothing we can do about it.  How do we get people to feel clean again?
The first example above is purely subjective about the experience of Confession (yet pretty convincing, I'd say!) and the second was derived experimentally and empirically.  Both say exactly the same thing:  Confession offers people "a way to feel clean again," and so the ability to "open a new page."  (And, of course, millions of A.A. members have experienced this, too.)

It's fairly clear to me that, these days, many people are living in a fury of anger at other people, which comes - I think - from a toxic internal stew.   Look at the anonymous comments on any website that allows them, and what you see is rage.  Now, we live in one of the wealthiest societies in the world - and people who are venting their spleens online, anonymously (and even not), are mostly not the very poor or disenfranchised (who actually have a reason to be angry).  Most people are simply furious because they have no outlet for their pain.  People need a way to feel clean again - or, maybe, for the first time. 

Here's the video again:

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