Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Free will, the Holy Spirit, and the best predictor of future behavior

When I assign a compare/contrast essay to my Introduction to Psychology students I usually get certain responses. I ask the students to pick a perspective that has influenced the field of psychology (e.g. biological, behaviorist, cognitivist, humanist) and compare it to a Christian perspective. Students will often choose the behaviorist or biological perspective and rightly point out that these perspectives are very deterministic in nature while a Christian perspective supports the existence of human free will. Some students will also insightfully note that materialist worldviews like behaviorism ignore the possibility of the Holy Spirit acting in people’s lives to instigate change. 

My students are right, but sometimes I worry about them. As Christians we hear stories of dramatic conversions. We hear of people who were addicted to drugs and lived on the streets but who have turned their life around through Christ’s power. We talk about Chuck Colson who became a Christian and completely changed his life after being involved in the Watergate scandal. We read of the apostle Paul who went from persecuting Christians to preaching the gospel. These are powerful stories. They show that hearts can change, that God is mighty, and that no one’s future is determined by nature or nurture. However, there is a reason we treasure these miraculous events. It is because they are extraordinary. Extra-ordinary. Not ordinary. Usually change is very, very difficult. 

This is where my concern for my students comes in. It is somewhat of a psychological truism that the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. If I want to predict if a man will smoke a cigarette tomorrow the most important information I can get is not his age, not his attitude toward cigarettes, not even his faith in God, but whether or not he smoked a cigarette today. If I want to predict a woman’s attendance to a particular class session the most valuable information I can get is not her attitude toward class, not her Meyers-Briggs personality type, but her prior attendance record. 

While it is true that people can change, and that the Holy Spirit works in the hearts of mankind, it would be unwise for us to ignore all of the useful insights that psychologists have gained while working under biological and behaviorist perspectives. Just because we reject the worldview of materialist perspectives like behaviorism we should not reject the research that came out of those perspectives. There is a lot to learn by studying brains, genes, learned behaviors, and early childhood experiences. We must not ignore the effects of neurotransmitters, the influence of inherited traits, or the power of learned behaviors. 

If we fail to take to heart the lessons learned from these perspectives through the over-emphasis of free will and change we run the risk of making bad decisions. As my dedicated students work hard to reject the anti-Christian ideas in some psychological theories I can’t help but fast-forward in my imagination to their futures. What if student X finds herself in an abusive relationship? Will she stick with him and believe that with enough love he will change? Or will she remember that nature, nurture, and learned behaviors are strong forces, highly resistant to change? What if student Y bends to the temptation to view internet pornography a handful of times? Will he remind himself of human free will and tell himself he can stop at any time? Or will he understand that such images are acting as powerful reinforcers and he is leading himself into a habit that has all the hallmarks of an addictive behavior?

God can change hearts and He can change minds and He can do these things in radical ways, but sometimes God allows us to struggle through the character-building life-lessons of slow and difficult change. As we struggle we can use the information God gave us through studies in psychological science. I always hope my students are enabled to do just that. 

Jessica Clevering, PhD., Assistant Professor of Psychology, Trinity Christian College