A few days ago our own Beth Haile did a wonderful post on how, 40 years after Roe, we are now finally starting to come to terms with the fact that the choice to have an abortion has not lead to anything like control over reproduction–and, in certain situations, it may actually contribute to having less control.
This allure of control can be very strong even in the face of overwhelming evidence. One oft-cited example is that of driving vs. flying; people generally prefer to drive rather than fly because it makes them feel like they are more in control and therefore more safe. The opposite, of course, is the case. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found, for instance that there were about 1.27 fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles traveled in 2008. The number of deaths in the same year from flying? Zero. The National Safety Council has calculated that the odds of dying in a motor vehicle accident to be 1 in 98 for a lifetime. For air and space transport (including air taxis and private flights), the odds were 1 in 7,178.
In a really nice post titled “Don’t Just Do Something, Stand There” a physician who calls himself ‘the Medical Skeptic’ (I recommend following him on Twitter @medskep) details how often the best course of action in the face of an injury or sickness is simply to do nothing. This flies in the face, of course, of not only of a desire for control on the part of patients–but our American medical culture of practicing defensive (and profit-driven) medicine (even when the chances of benefit are smaller than the risk of harm) and even our society’s legal understanding of “action” and “inaction.”
Those of us who follow American football likely caught the Seattle Seahawks’ head coach Pete Carroll losing a playoff game for his team a couple weeks ago. The game ended in the following way. Their opponent, the Atlanta Falcons, lined up for a field goal: if it is good the Seahawks lose, if it is missed the Seahawks win. Pete Carroll had no control over the outcome because it was all the hands of Atlanta’s kicker. But the thought of not having control was too much for him to bear, and he called timeout just before the kick in an attempt to “ice” the kicker by making him think for a few seconds longer about how important the kick is and hopefully cause him to miss. There is just one problem with this strategy: statistics show that icing the kicker actually makes him more likely to make the kick. And, in fact, Atlanta’s kicker missed his first attempt–but Carroll’s timeout ruined Seattle’s apparent victory. Unsurprisingly for anyone who knows the statistics, the second kick was good and the Falcons moved on in the playoffs while the Seahawks and Carroll went home with an embarrassing loss that should never have happened. All Pete Carroll had to do was…well…nothing.
We have heard a lot of talk in recent weeks (particularly from the NRA) about the desirability of owning a gun to protect one’s family. The debate over gun control is complicated, especially when it comes to interpreting the second amendment and the Constitution more generally on these matters, but lets leave that huge topic alone and instead interrogate the specific claim that it is, in fact, desirable to own a gun to protect one’s family. No doubt many feel more in control when they own a gun, but does it really protect one’s family? Statistics show that it does not. In addition to making suicide far more likely, owning a gun can turn a minor domestic incident into a homicide investigation. And then there are the terrible examples of children who play with and/or steal guns and end up killing themselves or a family member. Using guns in a defensive situation appropriately is an extremely rare phenomenon, making it significantly more likely that owning a gun will actually lead to the death of a family member than it will protect a family member from death.
Christians should know better than most that we are not in ultimate control of our lives, and therefore be better at flourishing in situations which call for us to give up the illusion of control. But are we? Living in a culture which celebrates self-actualization above almost everything else makes this a very difficult counter-cultural practice. Indeed, I count myself among the Christians who need to get better at trusting in God and giving up the illusion of control.
Thanks for this important post, Charlie. I recently gave a lecture on a similar point – about how we think of choice most often when we think of religious freedom, but that focus on choice has serious negative consequences, as well.
I also find Sheena Iyengar’s book The Art of Choosing to be helpful and thought provoking on questions of choice. She suggests we humans really like choice but we’re really bad at making good choices.
And finally, Liu Bolin’s artwork, featured recently in Smithsonian Magazine (http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/Liu-Bolin-the-Artist-Who-Makes-Himself-Invisible-166239236.html) captures an intriguing point. Bolin makes himself invisible against various backdrops – he did one featuring a Chinese military fanfare – and he himself has been censured by the Chinese government. But he also has done numerous invisible man paintings in stores featuring many choices – that the choices themselves make us invisible. Thought provoking stuff to me. I think we should be doing much more on choice.
Also agree this is a great post. There is some fantastic stuff out there on choice, as Jana is mentioning. Barry Schwartz’s The Paradox of Choice does a great (undergrad-level) job of complicating the “more choice=good,” and Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow is now the Bible on behaviorial irrationalities (depending on how you define “irrational”!).
I would say there are three underlying points that often arise from this literature: 1) we are bad with statistics, 2) we tend to have an overly high estimate of our ability to make good choices for ourselves (Kahneman, I think, calls this “optimism bias”), 3) choice is deeply influenced by framing, both in terms of presentation and in terms of how we frame a choice in relation to our past experience. I don’t think moral theology has done nearly enough in attending to any of these findings, but I think #3 is particularly important for us, because it rests on language description of the moral life.