The Gospel of Nudge

By now pretty much anyone who stays current with the science news knows that there is a lot going on in the study of the human mind. Authors like Malcolm Gladwell, Jonah Lehrer and the New York Times' David Brooks have made accessible ideas emerging from laboratories and field experiments that are significantly improving our understanding of how we navigate across the landscape of decision-making.

Some of the scientists are themselves bringing forward works of their own for a broader audience. Daniel Kahneman's "Thinking Fast and Slow" is a marvelously readable journey through the intellectual history of one of the founders of behavioral economics. Jonathan Haidt's 2012 book "The Righteous Mind" is an illuminating study of the reasons why questions of right and wrong can so deeply divide us. And a study by Max Bazerman and Anne Tenbrunsel, "Blind Spots," explores the hard limits on our moral reasoning -- and how we can design better decision-making approaches to help mitigate their effects.

You might think that church leaders would be eagerly interested in these ideas. For one thing, they have deep theological significance. Our moral reasoning, our frailty when it comes to the choices we make, the ease with which we make baseless and wrong judgments about other people -- all of these have long been the subject of theological reflection.

Beyond this, while churches are many things, they are at least human organizations. Like all organizations, they must make decisions. And like all human organizations, some perform well, while others perform poorly. The research frontier opening new insights into decision-making is making possible new approaches to the improvement of decision-making process -- and better ways to avoid the cognitive biases that all people and all organizations, believers or not, are liable to.

As I say, you might think. But it turns out that isn't true. I can say this with some confidence because I have a foot in both worlds. I work in one of the nation's most advanced laboratories for the study of decision-making; and I'm the pastor of a small church. And sometimes it feels as though I live on a long bridge connecting two very distant lands.

At one end the bridge touches the familiar ground of the church, a group of of individuals seeking both community in which to explore their spirituality and content for their search. By definition, the church is a social gathering of people who are more than just "spiritual but not religious"; they have made a choice to invest in, and contribute to, a gathered community, and they see it not only as a means of individual fulfillment but of making positive change in the world.

At the other end the bridge touches the hard ground of the scientific study of human behavior. It's where a new set of tools for the study of individual and group decision-making is catalyzing research and new findings in the understanding of why we choose as we do -- and why we often choose in ways contrary to our own interests.

I understand why my colleagues in science aren't that interested in the particular problems of the church, or even in the theological significance of their ideas. After all, they have their own work to do and their own fields to tend. But I'm less able to understand the indifference -- sometimes the outright resistance -- of my church colleagues to engaging with these ideas. From time to time it seems more than a little like an echo of the church's attitudes toward earlier revolutions from the world of scientific inquiry -- the cosmological revolution of Galileo and Kepler, or the natural-science revolution of Darwin. We are on the cusp of a third great revolution in science, the science of the human mind; but so far there is little to suggest the church has much interest in these ideas.

I wish it were otherwise. The work of theology has much as stake in what is emerging out of laboratories and the findings of field experimentation. Much of what we are learning about ourselves--the ease with which our best, most careful thinking can be waylaid by countless influences outside our conscious awareness, the role of emotion in shaping our understanding of the world and our choices in it, our tendency to make swift and incorrect judgments of other people and to stick to them despite evidence to the contrary -- is reflected on, even anticipated, in the Christian Scriptures. Certainly all of it together suggests the wisdom of a kind of humility, or at least healthy willingness to acknowledge our all-too-frequent errors of judgment, that is at the core of the Gospel's teaching.

The good news is that a handful of theologians are beginning to build new bridges between theology and the cognitive and behavioral sciences. Recent issues of such academic journals as Modern Theology and Faith and Philosophy have brought together thinkers and writers approaching the range of new findings in these fields through a faith perspective.

Beyond this, though, there is the more pastoral consideration of helping the sorts of human organizations that make up the church -- local parishes -- to function more effectively as organizations, and to help their leaders, whether clergy or lay people, function better as leaders. Again, you would think this would be a pretty straightforward proposition.

But it seems not to be. There is a kind of suspicion around these ideas, as though it is somehow evocative of a weak or wavering faith to take seriously ideas coming from outside the church. (Actually, behavioral scientists have studied this phenomenon; it's called the "not invented here" bias.)
That's too bad, because it deprives the church of a set of tools well-suited to its values. For many decades, the basic idea at the center of decision theory has been the notion of the human as a rational, utility-maximizing actor -- a creature very unlike the idea of humankind held by the tradition of theology. But with new tools that make possible a systematic understanding of (for example) the role of emotion in shaping our perceptions and choices, scientists are moving toward a more holistic picture of human decision-making that fits more easily with a theological appraisal of homo decerens, the human-as-decider.

I want to propose that we begin developing a "Gospel of Nudge" -- not, let's clarify, a gospel of "noodge," a very different thing, but a way of thinking about ourselves and our communities that links together the values of our faith with the new insights coming to us about the workings of the human mind. A Gospel of Nudge is inspired by the ideas of such writers as Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein in their important book "Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness" -- the notion that we will actually do better at improving outcomes if we think in terms of small steps that fit with what we learn about how humans actually decide instead of grand gestures that have little to do with the real constraints under which we all operate.

A Gospel of Nudge is an essentially incarnational approach to the work of Christian theology, if only because it insists on regarding with equal seriousness the aspirations our faith teaches us to have for the fullest of our humanity, and the realities we are discovering about our essential and universal frailty. It stands on the idea that if our purpose as a community of faith is to help people to grasp more completely their full spiritual potential, we do better to meet them on their own ground -- on the terms of human nature.

So think for a moment about how a Gospel of Nudge might address one of the principal challenges facing the mainline churches today -- the problem of decline.

By itself, decline is a statistical phenomenon, nothing more. But what it causes in many churches is something that significantly shapes decision-making -- a feeling of fear.

It turns out that fear, and how it shapes our decision-making, is the subject of considerable research. Fear makes us overestimate the likelihood of bad things happening; it reduces our sense of our agency, our ability to shape outcomes favorable to us. And it makes us more likely to avoid risks, not least the sort of risks that are inseparable from the sort of outward-facing initiatives that are critical to helping communities of faith engage the communities around them and grow again.

None of this is strange or alien to Christian theology. Indeed, the first message of the angels to the shepherds and the last message of the angels to the women in the garden is a message about avoiding fear: "Do not be afraid." It's not a polite suggestion; it's a critical part of the message of what it means to live as a disciple. Fear -- the fear of change, the fear of those who think differently, the fear of those who look or sound or dream or pray differently -- is something disciples are meant to have the discipline to do without. Beginning by identifying how our fears contribute to our sense of decline, we can craft small nudges aimed at helping move faith communities out of the grip of fear and toward brighter, bolder futures.

I'll be writing more from time to time about what a Gospel of Nudge might look like. In the meantime, I'm on the lookout for examples of how small nudges fit to the needs and gifts of specific communities are helping them flourish. Send examples if you find them.