Are you infected with “solution aversion”?

Duke University psychologists Troy Campbell and Aaron Kay recently published a paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology that suggests that a person’s deeply held beliefs may alter the way he or she interprets reality.

When Campbell and Kay suggested relatively easy fixes to problems caused by climate change to conservative Republicans, they were likely to agree that global temperatures are rising. But when the proposed solutions involved governmental regulations or threatened the health of the economy, the conservatives were much more likely to deny global warming entirely.

Likewise, when liberal Democrats were presented evidence suggesting that gun ownership reduced the likelihood of violent home invasions, they became much more likely to deny that violent home invasions pose a significant problem. Campbell summarized the study’s findings this way: “If you don’t want the solution to happen, then you deny the problem exists.” Campbell and Kay refer to this phenomenon as “solution aversion.”

In The Week, William Falk references the Duke study and bemoans our inability to reason “coolly and rationally, on the basis of evidence.” Instead, he says, “…virtually all of us … reason backward to the conclusion that feels right because it buttresses what we already believe.”

The Duke study’s results are not surprising (most of us could have anticipated them), but they are a helpful. They remind us of the extraordinary importance of responding “coolly and rationally, and on the basis of evidence.” They also remind us to be honest with ourselves, to question our reasoning, and to be alert to the covert prejudices that live inside us.

I was a spectator recently to a lively discussion on an issue of biblical interpretation. The parties involved held opposing views. One of the disputants offered biblical support for a conclusion the other rejected. When he asked her why she rejected it, her answer was: “Because that’s not what the Bible says.”

It was clear that both debaters had skin in the game. They each felt that the other’s views threatened some important theological principal. As a spectator (rather than a debater) it was obvious to me that at least one of the disputants was reasoning backward from the conclusion that felt right.

The Duke study, coupled with anecdotal evidence like this, sheds light on recent research from the Canadian Bible Society that indicates the mere reading of Scripture does not contribute to spiritual health and growth. The reason, in light of the Duke study, seems clear: unless we are careful, what we see in the Bible will only reinforce conclusions we’ve already drawn.

The biblical writers themselves were aware of how this process works. The Apostle John quotes Jesus who, in the midst of a tense debate with religious leaders, tells them: “You search the Scriptures because you think they give you eternal life. But the Scriptures point to me! Yet you refuse to come to me…” The religious leaders’ study of the Bible only reinforced a conclusion they already held and left them blind to the possibility of any other.

Fortunately, the Canadian Bible Society study went on to state that people who spend ten minutes a day (at least three days a week) reflecting on what they’ve read in the Bible benefit significantly. Those who talk with other people about what they’ve read benefit even more. Careful reflection and open discussion seem to minimize the impact of solution aversion and enable the reader to thoughtfully apply biblical truths to life.

Lest the reader concludes that solution aversion only affects (infects) religious people, let him or her remember that the Duke study was carried out with Democrats and Republicans, not Catholics and Protestants. The irreligious person has deeply-held beliefs too, a lifestyle to protect, and a solution offered – a life of faith and obedience – that he or she might wish to avert.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 12/6/2014

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