David Brooks, Healthy Religion, and the Real Danger of “Nudges”
On August 8th, each of New York City’s two leading newspapers, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, ran op-eds on the rise of social science approving and assisting some of our most cherished social concepts. David Brooks recommended the rise of “nudging,” where soft incentives or opt-out systems are used to encourage positive, socially and personally beneficial behavior. Ari Schulman, an alumnus of Brooks’s employ, considered the laudatory treatment of religion by various recent studies.
Brooks hailed the rise of what he called “social paternalism,” arguing that “most of us behave somewhat decently because we are surrounded by social norms and judgments that make it simpler for us to be good” and so “to some gentle extent, government policy should embody those norms.” Thankfully, “this has been a great era for the study of error,” so we have reams of fresh evidence to show how “people are pretty bad at sacrificing short-term pleasure for long-term benefit. We’re bad at calculating risk. We’re mentally lazy.” These innate defects of our constitution disadvantage us in the aggregate, causing inefficient group behavior and opening the door for systemic manipulation by for-profit actors seeking to exploit our failures for their own gain. “As these cognitive biases have become better known,” then, “public spirited people naturally want to design ways to help us avoid them.”
One such bias could well be found in the decline of religious practice. For as Schulman reported, “A ream of recent scientific research has given the faithful reason to rejoice: Belief is good for you.” Yeshiva University researchers found that “those who frequently attended religious services were 56% more likely than non-attending women to report high rates of optimism, and 27% less likely to report depression. Other studies of the same group found a 20% lower mortality rate.” A social media analysis found that “Christian tweeters used positive words more often than atheists, and negative words less often.”
Researchers working from Harvard, Duke, University College London, and many other institutions have repeatedly found that “religious identification and church attendance are associated with less social isolation, lower risk of substance abuse, lower rates of suicide, greater happiness and life satisfaction.” Yet social science is simultaneously finding that religious belief, identification, and participation is in decline, as the proportion of Americans declaring themselves to have a religious affiliation of “none” has skyrocketed, and church attendance has collapsed, especially among the young.
Such religious refusal in the face of empirical evidence would seem to be just the sort of cognitive bias Brooks refers to, choosing the short-term pleasure of a warm bed on a Sunday morning to the long-term benefit of riding the pews regularly, calculating risks poorly in the face of the potential of such overwhelming adverse consequences should a Christian eschatology pan out, and being too mentally lazy to understand all the this-world benefits religious practice would bestow. “These days, we have more to fear from a tattered social fabric than from a suffocatingly tight one,” after all, so “some modest paternalism might be just what we need” to nudge our citizenry back into Sunday and Saturday services, for their own good.
Schulman says, however, that “believers should be wary of celebrating these findings too much.” Even though “the faithful may be winning at the game of life…they’re playing by rules that social scientists have written in essentially post-religious terms.” Schulman notes that “think tanks like the Family Research Council and the Marriage and Religion Research Institute have tried to boost religion’s public and political standing by trumpeting those positive scientific findings,” and he notes that Ross Douthat carefully documented how “prominent spiritual figures from televangelist Joel Osteen to holistic guru Deepak Chopra have advanced a version of faith that promises to deliver wealth, health and inner peace.”
Schulman quotes famed Christian apologist C.S. Lewis, “Men or nations who think they can revive the Faith in order to make a good society might just as well think they can use the stairs of Heaven as a short cut to the nearest chemist’s shop.” When faith is turned into a sociological means to “health and wealth, well-being and satisfaction,” it becomes an interchangeable institution, co-opted by the measurable priorities of the present day’s social science. Such attitudes rob religion of the radicalness that drove the money-changers from the temple, or smashed the idols in Mecca, or interrupted the working life of master and slave alike for a holy Sabbath.
The concern over “nudges,” then, is not just whether “this kind of soft paternalism will inevitably slide into a hard paternalism, with government elites manipulating us into doing the sorts of things they want us to do.” As real a concern as that is in the age of the HHS mandate, the degradation of conscious choice also changes the texture of the issues at stake.
If “government could design forms where the default option is to donate organs,” for example, the topic can escape from our attention, and the brief flicker of an opportunity to consider our mortality, the meaning of the body, and the redefinition of death can vanish into bureaucratic ink. Advocates no longer have to advocate, and the ideas associated with organ donation can wither once it has been willed from the social to the bureaucratic.
All choices are not equal, and when it comes to regulating bank overdraft fees, or requiring AC units to have filter-changing lights, both sound pretty inoffensive. But the idea that the “tattered social fabric” can be patched by paternalistic welfare nudges betrays a shockingly thin understanding of the social constitution.
The social fabric can only be restored by people doing the hard work of free association and self-government. That process matters far more than any particular welfare outcome, and there are no shortcuts.