The Role of Persuasion and Cognitive Bias in Your Church

This article discusses one of my typical Sundays at church and identifies elements of Principles of Persuasion and Cognitive Bias in it. It is intended to show that Religious Belief is induced and supported by common psychological devices of principles of persuasion and cognitive bias of the type that are used in Politics, Advertising and Marketing. The discussion of Politics, Advertising and Marketing is kept to a minimum because I believe that in those categories, the devices are self-evident. Any book on critical thinking will discuss the use of principles of persuasion in Politics, Advertising and Marketing but will skirt the issue with regard to Religion. To sustain a belief in something for which no evidence exists requires some type of reinforcement. These principles provide reinforcement. They can get you through your "Dark Night of the Soul".

As I moved around I chose my churches carefully. I picked a church that was closest to the kind I grew up with, the kind where the preacher said the kind of things I was used to hearing, and where the people believed the same way I did. I'd get up early on Sunday, eager to get to Bible Study (before I started teaching it). It was the same story I'd heard a hundred times before, but I was hearing it from someone else's perspective. The service followed and I led the singing. I'd stand up there waiting for the preachers cue as he told his formally educated version of a story I'd heard a hundred times before. He would speak with a range of emotion and used powerful imagery. People would be injecting the random "Amen" here and there as he made his points. Then the preacher would give me the cue and we'd sing the same songs we'd been singing in previous years, and people would be waving their hands in the air. Singing those songs loud and strong evoked such good feelings. We'd stop and bow our heads together and the preacher would lead us in a prayer.

He was always dressed professionally and had good hair cut. He was the nicest most likable guy you'd ever want to meet. He was so un-intimidating, so comforting. In fact everyone looked nice (some dressed to kill) and most were a pillar in the community.

We had a stained glass window, pictures of bible stories all over the church and a big Jesus on the cross. After the service we'd get together and talk about things such as how blessed we were. When we talked about things, there was a lot of speculation as we tried to understand how this or that must have come about. I guess you could say it was a little like gossip. That was fellowship, and fellowship was a very important part of the church experience. I miss it now. I always marveled at the loyalty, faith and sacrifice of my fellow church members. The lady that played the piano never stopped serving the community and was an inspiration to me. I wanted that kind of faith, and I strove to get it.

I am assuming my experience was typical of the average protestant Sunday. It was filled with elements of persuasion to keep the faith alive with a lack of evidence. Lets see how many elements of persuasion we can identify in the story above.

First, lets see what "factors of persuasion" and "Cognitive Bias" are. Some of them are in the list that follows.
- People "remember the hits and forget the misses". People are naturally terrible at perceiving and interpreting probabilistic data.
- People are naturally terrible at estimating probability.
- People like stories and are willing to give the teller of the story the benefit of the doubt about the truth of it.
- People are more likely to believe a story if it comes from someone they like.
- People are more likely to believe a story if it comes from an authority.
- People are more likely to believe a story if it fits with what they already believe or want to believe.
- People are more likely to believe a story if it is believed by the larger group.
- People are more likely to believe a story that is accompanied by symbols or imagery to include music.
- People will come to believe what they hear the more it is repeated to them.
- People will change their evidence based viewpoint if it contradicts the viewpoint of the group.
- People overestimate the degree of belief in others.
- People look for confirmation of what they already believe and disregard things that contradict.
- People are likely to use the precautionary principle as illustrated by Pascals Wager in minimizing risk.
- People fill in the gaps in information naturally. We fill in the missing details in stories, with the blind spot in the eye, movies, music etc.

So now, how does the list above relate to the story above it? I'm sure better examples can be found but this is the best I could do with the time I had.

- When thinking about prayer, they focus on the prayer that was answered rather than un-answered. There are more un-answered prayers than answered. (People "remember the hits and forget the misses”. People are naturally terrible at perceiving and interpreting probabilistic data.)

- Attributing coincidences to Divine Manipulation, for example, a woman in the news who was convinced that she was spared by God when a racing car went into the crowd and killed the people next to her. (People are naturally terrible at estimating probability)

- Jesus supposedly taught in parables and people make up analogies to explain religious concepts and scripture. When hearing a story that would normally be hard to believe, in the context of a sermon or being told by a fellow church member, the estimation of the likelihood of exaggeration is low. (People like stories and are willing to give the teller of the story the benefit of the doubt about the truth of it.)

- People don't expect that people they like, especially Christians, would lie to them. People don't suspect the story is being exaggerated. One reason is the belief that the teller is accountable to God and God knows everything. (People are more likely to believe a story if it comes from someone they like.)

- People don't expect their religious leader to try to lie to them or exaggerate. (People are more likely to believe a story if it comes from an authority.)

- When the preacher tells a story or uses an analogy, its going to fit what the listeners already believe. The Preacher wouldn’t use it if it didn’t. (People are more likely to believe a story if it fits with what they already believe or want to believe.)

- People are likely to believe that all these people can’t be wrong and since the belief has survived thousands of years, it is not likely to be false. The bandwagon fallacy. They assume they must be mistaken. Especially since it is a tenant of Christianity to blame people in any case there is a conflict with doctrine. (People are more likely to believe a story if it is believed by the larger group.)

- Christianity relies on powerful imagery. Politicians and the Advertising and Marketing industry rely heavily on this as well. In the Elaboration Likelihood Model of persuasion, the use of emotive language and imagery in general (known as the peripheral route in the ELM) is the easiest to use to persuade people. (People are more likely to believe a story that is accompanied by symbols or imagery to include music. )

- After a while, since it is repeated to you so much, you know the bible by heart. Think "sound bite". WWJD. (People will come to believe what they hear the more it is repeated to them.)

- If people start to question their beliefs, they are likely to believe they must be wrong. If they perceive things that contradict the bible, they will bend over backwards to reconcile it in their minds to mitigate the cognitive dissonance that results. This is called self-justification. (People will change their evidence based viewpoint if it contradicts the viewpoint of the group.)

- People are more likely to believe that other members of the church are more devout than they are. (People overestimate the degree of belief in others.)

- If the preacher started to preach from the perspective of another denomination it would make them uncomfortable. For example, Protestants would disregard a lot of what a Catholic priest taught. In another example, think about all those religious leaders that have been found genuinely guilty of abuse but are being defended by their congregation and the Church. They don’t want to believe the religious leader is guilty. (People look for confirmation of what they already believe and disregard things that contradict.)

- The Bible has a cryptic warning about the unforgivable sin of blaspheming the Holy Spirit. Talk about a conversation killer. Be careful what you say about God. Make sure you do the right thing and get baptized and such so you can get into heaven. Why else would you believe the events in the bible except to avoid going to hell? Because you love God? How can you love something you can't comprehend, or touch, or see or hear? Precautionary principle, Cognitive Bias and Principles of Persuasion. (People are likely to use the precautionary principle as illustrated by Pascals Wager in minimizing risk.)

- In relaying stories that support belief or creating analogies to help explain how to view scripture or a religious concept, exaggeration is inevitable. (The listener and the teller fill in the gaps in information naturally and automatically, for example in stories, the blind spot in the eye, watching movies, listening to music, etc)


When there are good arguments on both sides and you don't have any evidence to make an inference based on Logic, then you always have your friends, family, church and culture to give you a feeling about the truth of an issue. This is the how the industry of marketing and advertising works as well as politics.

Does anyone just pick a church at random and make it their church home? No, they shop around and visit other churches till they find one that 'feels' right. Why does it feel right? The Holy Spirit, Satan or self? How do they know? They decide from the factors listed above. The decide based on the persuasive influences in their environment. Those persuasive influences reinforce their belief in things unseen, un-testable, un-detectable, and things that rely on "internal knowing".


REFERENCES

- Cialdini, Robert. 2001. Influence: Science and Practice. Boston. Allyn and Bacon.
- Gilovich, Thomas. 1991. How We Know What Isn't So. New York. The Free Press: A division of Macmillan, Inc.
- Okeefe, Daniel J. 1990. Persuasion Theory and Research. Newbury Park, California. Sage Publications.
- Social Judgment Theory
- Information-Integration Models of Attitude
- Cognitive Dissonance Theory
- Theory of Reasoned Action
- Elaboration Likelihood Model of persuasion.
- Cialdini's Six weapons of influence
- List of Cognitive Biases
- DC Article: Why Do Christians Believe?
- DC Article: From an Atheists Perspective
- ChangingMinds.org

Persuasion Videos from Debate Central.
- Speaking to Persuade
- Objects of Persusion
- Theories of Persuasion
- Strategies of Persuasion

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