Piaget, “Formal Operations” And The Mormon Ability To Comprehend Reality

One of my friends is a successful clinical psychologist with a background in theology. He is one of the sharpest people with whom I regularly deal when it comes to understanding the academic psychological literature, and practically applying it. Here is part of a note he sent to me and a number of other people as we were discussing the difficulty we have observed in trying to communicate with literalist religious people about matters that question their faith.

He says:

“About 90% of the world’s population never achieve formal operations as Piaget (…) defined them. When these are plotted against socio-economic status (SES) on the vertical axis, the resulting graph is almost a perfectly inverted pyramid. Higher SES accounts for nearly all formal operations capacity.

As you know formal operations consists, among other things, of the ability to manipulate abstract concepts which in turn is essential for critical, analytical thinking. Objectively appraising one’s religious beliefs would be an example of the latter. Brain development in early adolescence (of various frontal regions) makes formal operations possible. Thus in high school formal operations first manifest themselves but they reach their full fruition in college.

Literalist religious beliefs are not confined to lower SES but they are more common there.

There is some question as to whether Piaget’s system can be extrapolated from the Western European culture from which it was derived but its validity seems to remain relatively intact in the Northern West.

With many literalists, you may be speaking the same words but you are talking a different language.”

As I have noted elsewhere, I think cognitive dissonance and various cognitive biases are highly explanatory with regard to why most of us have trouble dealing with information that conflicts with our important belief. See… for my treatment that subject. This analysis is particularly helpful when it comes to understanding the situation of well-educated people who confront inadequacies in their belief system. They are capable of abstract, critical thought and hence experience significant cognitive dissonance as they wrestle with issues that pit scientifically sound theory and evidence against dogmatic belief. And, they tend to resort to sophisticated rationalizations in an attempt to relieve their cognitive dissonance. These rationalizations include things like Heidigerian philosophy (the experienced moment is the most reliable reality, etc.), various strains of postmodern ridiculousness, and the other kinds of strained rationalizations for which farms and fair are infamous within the post-Mormon community. “Intelligent design” and “creation science” are examples of the same sort of thing in other parts of the literalist Christian community.

However, I have noticed that with many people discussions with regard to the nature of religious belief do not even get off the deck. All they can do is respond by bearing their testimony — they “know” on the basis of their experience, what is true. That is where Piaget comes in. Just as things like the intricacies of string theory and quantum mechanics are simply beyond me, abstract ideas with regard to the disconnect between our emotional experience and reality are beyond the grasp of many members of our families and communities. It is not realistic to expect people of this sort to change their beliefs, or even understand ours, as long as their emotional and social experience continues to run along Mormon lines and as long as their intellectual experience leaves them below the formall operations watermark.

Interestingly, many people leave Mormonism because it simply does not work for them without understanding of why that is the case. That is, their emotional experience within Mormonism does not justify the investment of time, effort etc. Mormonism requires. Sadly, people of this type often carry a burden of guilt with them because they have not falsified the Mormon belief system. All they know is that it does not work for them; that it does not feel right. Many of these people still hold Mormon beliefs, which ironically indict them. They believe they were not good enough to live by the Mormon rulebook. They feel guilty. And without the ability to place their religious experience and beliefs in context, it is difficult for them to shake these feelings. This is also often a function of not having abstract thinking skills at or above the level required to get out of the Mormon box.

One of the good things we can say about Mormonism is that it emphasizes education, and hence encourages the development of Piaget’s formal operational thinking. It therefore has sown the seeds of its own demise. That is not to say that the Mormon Church will go away; rather, I believe that it will be forced to change because it has created several generations now of people who are capable of abstract, critical thinking. As my friend pointed out above, these people tend to be successful. Either Mormonism will change to accommodate them, or it will lose them. If there is one thing that Mormonism’s leaders understand, consciously or not, it is hanging on to cash flow. So bank on it — Mormonism will change to become acceptable to those of its members who are capable of abstract, critical thinking. This is likely, however, to take several generations.

Consider the difference between mainstream Mormonism and the FLDS in that regard. I have long said that Mormonism retards its adherents. I still think it is a fair statement. However, we are talking about relatively minor retardation. It is far more difficult for a disaffected member of the FLDS faith to leave that cloister that it was for me to leave mine.

From my point of view, a big part of letting go of Mormonism in a healthy way comes down to being able to accept and forgive others for doing what they do in being what they are. As we come to understand that people who have lied to us, stolen time, money and energy from us, and otherwise harmed us were acting in ways that were not only predictable, but in most cases unavoidable, it is easier to let go and move on. The same kind of understanding with regard to those who cannot understand our current beliefs and behavior is helpful. And this of course applies as well to that person to whom it is often most difficult to extend forgiveness – ourselves.

Leave a Reply