Many of us who’ve left Christian Science, and I’m sure others who know about it, wonder why otherwise perfectly rational and sane people remain steadfast believers, despite repeated and undeniable failures on the part of Christian Science to heal. Most of us ex-Christian Scientists would put our past selves into that category of former “true believers despite the evidence to the contrary.” On a discussion thread in one of the ex-Christian Scientist Facebook groups, a group member offered a possible answer to this intriguing (to me, anyway) question.
Here’s a possible reason why…
Intermittent reinforcement: “The name given to any pattern of reinforcement where only some responses are reinforced.”1
(emphasis is mine)
Intermittent reinforcement is, to quote my friend from the Facebook group, a “very powerful conditioner of behaviour.” In a laboratory setting, it works like this: under continuous reinforcement, a rat will receive a food pellet every time it hits a bar; under intermittent reinforcement, the rat will be rewarded on a more random basis, perhaps every 50 hits, or every few minutes or so, or every time a particular person is in the room. Most importantly though, the rat is not rewarded every time it hits the bar.2
Intermittent reinforcement is the lifeblood of the gaming industry, for example. People keep pumping dollar coins into slot machines because occasionally, they get a reward. However cumulatively, over the long-term, they usually lose. I have a friend who faithfully buys lotto tickets every week, because the potential reward urges him on. I even occasionally buy tickets as well, for the same reason. The most I’ve ever won in a single time in the lotto is $20.00; and I think my friend has cumulatively won around $1,000.00 at the most in the six years I’ve known him. He spends about $25.00 per week on tickets, which adds up to $1,300.00 per year ($7,800.00 in the time I’ve known him)–it’s a very lousy investment. But, that occasional reward keeps him going, and that promise that maybe he’ll win the $50 million jackpot. In case anyone ever thinks they have a good chance at hitting it big in Vegas, think about how all of those glitzy hotels are paid for–lots of people losing lots of money to the ‘house’. The non-profit I work for gets a nice chunk of our program funding from the provincial government’s gaming grants–all those lotto tickets that don’t win a dime add up. At least they’re doing good across the province though.
Intermittent reinforcement is extremely powerful. In laboratory experiments, when rats are subjected to continuous reinforcement in which a behaviour is rewarded constantly and regularly, that behaviour can easily be ended during an extinction period in which the behaviour is not rewarded. With intermittent reinforcement, the animal becomes accustomed to periods of no reward, so if the experimenter cuts off the reward, the animal is less likely to cease the behaviour. They show a resistance to behaviour extinction.3
So, how does this all relate to Christian Science?
Christian Science, I believe, keeps many of its adherents through intermittent reinforcement. To quote my friend, “so, for CSists (Christian Scientists), the apparent occasional healing is the intermittent reward that conditions a similar fidelity to a losing behaviour.” (emphasis is mine). Like the gambler that keeps placing their bet, even though they’re down a thousand dollars, they keep going because once in a while there is a reward.
As I look back on my ‘career’ in Christian Science, I got lured by the occasional reward. Sometimes it was a physical healing I thought was occasioned by prayer in Christian Science. For many years, in my family, we attributed my Dad’s apparently full recovery from the effects of what later was determined was likely a stroke, to be a miraculous Christian Science healing, and that really fuelled my faith for several years until I finally left Christian Science. Never-mind that he never recovered his memory of the day it happened, or that evidence of a stroke showed up years later in a CT scan. He wasn’t healed, he just survived it with few physical effects–not necessarily uncommon. If it had been a complete healing in Christian Science, there would have been no evidence of the stroke in the CT scan because, in Christian Science, it never happened.
For me, mainly it was the little rewards that were mostly just ‘life event’ or emotional things working out that kept me hooked, as well as my desire for Christian Science to work–a desire that often blinded me to its failures. It doesn’t matter that, as I look back now, none of the supposed ‘healings’ from my past could be attributed solely to the action of Christian Science ‘treatment’. As I think on the patterns I recall with most other Christian Scientists I knew throughout my life, intermittent reinforcement is a large part of what kept and keeps them in as well, I think–even in the face of very obvious failures. One friend of mine lost both parents to radical reliance on Christian Science, yet he remains a faithful adherent. I witnessed the physical decline of both of his parents first-hand; and it was one of the many things in my life that caused me to question my faith. Intermittent reinforcement is indeed quite powerful.
1 “What is INTERMITTENT REINFORCEMENT?” Psychology Dictionary. PsychologyDictionary.org. n.d. Web. 25 August 2015.
2 Dewey, Russell A., PhD. “Intermittent Reinforcement and Resistance to Extinction.” Psychology: An Introduction. Russ Dewey. n.d. Web. 25 August 2015.