I've seen and heard it asked many a time how so many people can stay at a place or in a group where things are off kilter and even harmful. Seeing as I'm reading Roy Baumeister's Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty and Daniel Kahneman's Thinking Fast and Slow I'm immersing myself in psychological examinations of human cruelty and the brain's capacity to function as a machine for jumping to conclusions. And I'm watching episodes of Batman: the animated series, so you could say there's this overarching pattern here where I think a lot about human cruelty and where it comes from. To say "sin" is not quite full enough an account and the older I get and the more widely I read the more I think the usual bromides I heard, particularly in Martian circles about pride, the more I believe that truncated hamartiology is wildly dangerous.
As I have blogged before pride (or, more accurately, the theological term hubris) can be considered a kind of stem cell of sin. Once it transforms into some other kind of cell merely addressing it as "pride" will not work. It's like a jovial old lady who once joked, "Honey, everybody dies of heart failure." It may be broadly true that everyone has a heart that fails eventually but it's equally true that everyone ends up braindead. :-) Neither of those necessarily account for death by bone marrow cancer in a serious way, do they?
Now to get specific, people have asked how it is people can soldier on at a place like Mars Hill despite the things that have come to light. If people knew how Scott Thomas managed the kangaroo court that led to the firing of Paul Petry and Bent Meeyer why would they stay? Some people didn't know or didn't hear from sources they could consider credible enough to take seriously. Others knew and stayed because, well, though they didn't agree with everything that had happened none of that stuff hit close to home enough for them to feel leaving made sense. There were enough positives to outweigh the negatives for one simple reason, the negatives haven't really hit "me" so it's not me that has to fret too much over problems.
Or at least that was good enough until the negatives actually hit some of those kinds of people.
But there's another group of people who are considered to have drunk the flavor-aid ("kool aid" is a shorthand that is not necessarily accurate but is more popular because the term is more familiar). But, really, what does it even mean to say "drunk the kool aid"? By itself it means nothing and is a phrase often rolled out by people who think they're better for having not drunk the kool-aid.
You know what? If at any point you were in that religious institution you drank it, too, there just wasn't enough toxicity in it for you to have died from it ... or you got some nasty cramps and realized you needed to see a doctor, if we're going to play with that analogy for a while.
There are a lot of people who soldier on. First they were drawn in by the halo effect. As Daniel Kahneman so eloquently puts it our brain is an organ designed to jump to conclusions, often with incomplete information that must be assessed instantly. We do this uncritically most of the time because we don't need to critically assess our hunches, generalizations, and intuitions. Kahneman goes to some length to say that the reason cognitive biases and jumping to wrong conclusions are so unfortunate is because most of the time the cognitive shortcuts, heuristics, and biases in our brains work correctly and accurately. You know your brother doesn't like the same food you do the second you see his reaction. You know your daughter wants a hug even if she doesn't say anything. You can tell from a look. If your date finds the movie boring you don't have to work that hard to figure that out. A split second will often suffice. Yet we can easily get sucked into strange things because, at heart, we all want to delude ourselves into thinking we're going to be the exceptions in the Milgram experiment. And thus we join clubs we later may regret.
But many of us don't. Why is that? Well, here's a possibility--because of the sunk cost fallacy, there are a lot of people who assume the best because of a halo effect. If you combine the halo effect with the sunk cost fallacy it's remarkably easy to grasp how so many people could stay in a setting like Mars Hill despite things like a kangaroo court or an ill-advised property purchase or imcompetently executed church discipline and subsequent communication. The halo effect means you're already, probably unconsciously putting the best light on the subject (or the worst light if you're a "hater") and then the sunk cost fallacy kicks in and you will refuse to revise or refine your assessment to fit new information. Thus people who leave before the bad stuff touches you must have had problems with spiritual authority. Or you assume anyone who doesn't like the stuff you like must have problems with spiritual authority.
In a Mars Hill context the absurdity of this negative polarity halo effect in assessing outsiders becomes more apparent when Mars Hill advocates jump to this conclusion and forget that some critics of Mars Hill have been Catholic. Earth to Mars, Catholics clearly do not, as a rule, have problems with spiritual authority! If someone is part of the Southern Baptist convention that person probably has more concern about actual accountability and protocol than Mark Driscoll will ever have in his life.
You see we claim to ourselves to be rational creatures but we are emotional creatures and the emotional narratives we construct for ourselves allow us to make sense of our lives. As Joan Didion so grimly put it in The Year of Magical Thinking we can't bring ourselves to admit to the possibility that these narratives we build for ourselves may be wrong, may be futile attempts to impose an order or comprehensible aspect to the chaos of our lives and deaths.
Still, once the emotional narrative is written you do you step back from it and let it be rewritten so that you see things from a new perspective? Many people aren't willing to do that. Suppose people granted that the kangaroo court was problematic from the get-go? Suppose they had some idea that Munson's rambling politesse was covering up the harsh reality that it was all politics and pragmatism disguised under spirituality? Well, as Solzhenitsyn put it the line between good and evil runs inside every human heart and who wants to destroy a part of one's own heart? The sunk cost fallacy comes to the rescue of the halo effect.
But the most troubling reality here is that the sunk cost fallacy comes to the rescue of the halo effect from every direction. A person who has been burned now is likely to retroactively view everything over the previous ten years in light of now's emotional catharsis and that can be as much a halo effect with a sunk cost fallacy as the process that flowed up until the crisis of now. Cognitive biases, heuristics, errors in judgment these are not just things out there. They exist within our own hearts, within our own brains. This is not some new flash of insight. The heart is deceitful above all things and who can understand it?