Motivated Reasoning

Back in the 1950s, psychologists conducted an experiment involving students from two Ivy League colleges.  They showed students films of controversial referees’ calls in a football game and they asked the students what they thought of the validity of the calls, with the benefit of the filmed evidence right in front of them.  What the researchers found was that the visual evidence made very little difference whatsoever to the opinions of those in the study.  Students tended to think that officiating calls favoring their own school were good, even if the evidence pretty clearly suggested otherwise.  Which group they belonged to was more important in forming their opinions than what actually happened on the field.  Social scientists call this tendency “motivated reasoning,” that is, the tendency to conform one’s assessment of information based more on one’s own particular goals and biases than on the actual facts.

Motivated reasoning has been popping up a lot lately as people try to explain the culture of political discourse in this country, where party affiliation or particular point of view – on both sides of the aisle – tend to influence individuals’ thinking more than a dispassionate assessment of the facts.  All very interesting, but not my point this morning.

Motivated Reasoning seems to come into play quite a lot in the area of religion.  For instance, many people see motivated reasoning at work in the opinions of devoutly religious people who refuse to accept the overwhelming scientific evidence of evolution.  One’s religious affiliation and the conviction of one’s established beliefs are stronger motivators than the actual facts.  Also interesting, but still not my point.

We are gathered here today as a bunch of more or less sophisticated Episcopalians who more or less regard ourselves as quite above that kind of small-mindedness.  We are able to hold in comfortable tension the possibilities that God is Lord of the universe and Creator of all, and that the earth is several billions of years old, and that the fossil record shows that our human species evolved from less sophisticated, less upright species.  But this, too, is not my point.

My point is this: that as more or less sophisticated, and (dare I say it?) liberal Episcopalians, our sense of ourselves as sinners is often somewhat under-developed.  We prefer to leave the focus on sin to catholic nuns, and various brands of Baptists and other exotic species of Christians.  Between the guilt-ridden, old-school nuns; and the Bible thumping, accusing firebrands, sin, we figure, is well accounted for elsewhere.

Not often will you wander into an Episcopal church and hear a sermon expounding the horrors to which sin will inevitably lead.  Not often is the name “sinner” to be found on the lips of the Episcopal clergy, and less often directed at any of our parishioners.  Not often are we invited to carefully consider our sins in HD, 3-D, full color, with the expectation that we might confess our sin, repent of it, and begin to lead a more godly, righteous, and sober life, as the old, and seldom-used prayer says.

Indeed, we Episcopalians tend to think pretty well of ourselves.  We look in the mirror and we like what we see.  We evaluate ourselves, and find not too much wanting.  A royal wedding every now and then allows us to feel quite pleased with ourselves.  The follies of other denominations help us hold on to our own self-satisfied outlook.  Our reasonable religion is not incapable of a certain smugness that we sometimes wear with an air of superiority.  Asked to evaluate ourselves and examine our consciences, we do not break a sweat, for we are, in a way, inclined to think that old joke about using the wrong fork at the dinner table is, in fact, the worst kind of sin an Episcopalian could commit.

Along comes Lent, and we are asked to call ourselves names that we do not think fit us very well: “miserable sinners.”  We are asked to grovel before God, praying: “We beseech thee to hear us, good Lord.  Spare us, good Lord.  Good Lord, deliver us.”  We can tolerate these indignities, if we dress up nicely and sing them to music of the English Renaissance – but only just.  And generally speaking we do not believe these things we have sung about ourselves this morning.  The ritual pleases us because it allows us to recite the words we know we are required to say without actually having to invest too much in meaning them.  And over brunch we can discuss whether or not the altos really sang their part correctly all the way through.  How very Downton Abbey of us.

If we stop to reason about ourselves at all, it is a motivated reasoning that has reached all the best conclusions, and leads us to think that really God is quite lucky to have us on his side.  All this, despite an impressive array of evidence that all is not so well with us, either as individuals or as a group.

Nationally, our church is often defined by division, and has been engrossed with endless law suits.

In our own diocese, we have been consumed by conflict and the question of which side of various issues we line up on.

And in our own individual lives, does the evidence really point to an absence of sin?  To a bad fit for the name, “Sinner?”

Have we mended our strained relationship with our brother, or parents, or maybe our first spouse?

Have we done a fair assessment of our habits and given up the ones that don’t do us much good – the food, the booze, the drugs, the cigarettes, the sex, the laziness?

When we ask what it would mean to really be faithful to God, do we honestly think we measure up very well?

When we consider whether we have treated others as we would wish to be treated by them, are we also including the homeless and the hungry, those in prison, and folks who generally don’t look like us?

When we look at where and how we spend our money, does it not occur to us that perhaps we could have done better?  Much better?

And these questions represent only the first pass at the most obvious possibilities.

A fair assessment of our sins – of those areas of our lives where we come up short – will, in most cases, give us plenty to think about.  And yet, by brunch time we will have stopped thinking about it, and will have put on again the armor of complacency that leads us safely back into the world, where we must never let on that we are even familiar with the word “sin” – except as a suitable punch-line for witty repartee.

Lent, however, is an exercise in a new Motivated Reasoning, for it is an effort to motivate us to consider a new reasoning about ourselves.  It is an effort to be more critical of ourselves, more discerning in our self-evaluation, more demanding in our expectations of ourselves.

Even those of you whose low self-esteem may be your worst sin, and who certainly do not need to identify more to dislike about yourselves can benefit from discovering a new Motivated Reasoning. 

But so many of us have gotten so accustomed to thinking so well of ourselves, that it can be hard to take seriously the consideration of our sin: those things we have done which we ought not to have done, and those things left undone which we ought to have done.

Give me a pencil and piece of paper, and a few minutes on my own, and I could come up with a list for myself that is much, much longer than the Great Litany.  But of course, such an exercise is seldom required of us, not even of me.

If the psychologists are right, however, even a great deal of evidence that I amass on my own reflection is unlikely to sway me to consider my own sin, so fast do I cling to my dearly held estimation of myself.

I suppose one reason we might have adopted this kind of motivated reasoning is the unappealing suspicion that God is an angry master, just waiting to scold us.  To reflect on our sins is to invite the possibility of an ugly response from God:  “AHAAAA! I ALWAYS KNEW YOU WERE A SNOT-NOSED SINNER WITH A RECORD AS LONG AS YOUR ARM!  AND AT LAST YOU HAVE ADMITTED IT!”

But this is a deeply misguided suspicion for Christians, who will struggle to find hints of such invective in the story of Jesus, and his ministry, his teaching, and his saving death.  It is true that Jesus found fault with the self-righteous, whose motivated reasoning prevented them for seeing themselves for who and what they really were.  But he was known to be gentle, kind, generous, and forgiving to those whose sin was widely known.

When we finally have the nerve to find new motivation, and new reasoning, and confess our faults to God, we discover that he has not been waiting to punish us; he has been waiting to forgive us.  “Pish posh,” God says, “I’ve seen a lot worse than that.”

So here we are in Lent.  This morning we have tried on the name, “miserable sinner.”  Does it not fit pretty well, at least some of the time?  I can certainly find it in my size.

We have practiced, just a little, these apparently debasing prayers: “We beseech thee to hear us, good Lord.  Spare us, good Lord.  Good Lord, deliver us.”  But do we find that we are not actually debased by them, rather, we are beginning to have a more honest conversation with God?

The real problem with our old reasoning, our old motivation, was that it left us very much the same people at the end of the day as we were at the beginning.  But the Motivated Reasoning of Lent is meant to change us, and to bring us into a new and happier life with God and with our neighbors.

But you know what they say: admitting you have a problem is the first step toward solving it.  Maybe if we could admit that we really are miserable sinners that would be the first step toward leading a new life, with our sin left behind, forgiven by God?

Now, that would be good news!


Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen

17 February 2013

Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia





Posted on February 18, 2013 .