Human beings adjust behavior based on the metrics they’re held against. Anything you measure will impel a person to optimize his score on that metric.
In other words, we become what we’re measured by.
What does the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons or LDS) measure?
When I was a leader in our LDS congregation, I attended a training meeting where an Apostle gave a presentation. He displayed a diagram to attempt to illustrate the positive impact that “the gospel” had on his family.
At the far left there were two solid-colored figures representing the Apostle and his wife. It then branched out to the right with more solid-colored figures representing each of his children, their spouses, their grandchildren and so on. There were a LOT of people in the diagram.
As I remember it, he color-coded the diagram — a different color representing different stages of progression in Mormonism (baptism, priesthood, temple, etc). His goal was to demonstrate the wonderful impact that the “gospel” has had upon his family… simply by pointing out with pride how Mormon his family was.
Any Mormon will recognize this attitude right away because it’s the default. It’s the same that’s found in this video produced by LDS Philanthropies encouraging parents to give their children’s inheritance to the Church if they are “wayward”. (I skiped to the most applicable part.)
“when it all comes down to it… if I ran into somebody 30 years from today and they say to me, ‘how are my kids are doing?’ if my son has a temple recommend and is a worthy Melchizedek Priesthood holder, I will say my son is doing fantastic.”
It’s common to hear Mormon parents and grandparents boast to each other about how many of their children or grandchildren have been on missions or been through the temple. Nothing else needs to be said to imply a successful life.
In my final ward as a believing Mormon, I remember visiting a sweet, ninety-year-old woman from the ward. I was there with a bunch of rowdy boys from our Priests Quorum. One of the leaders asked her if she had any life advice for the kids. “Stay close to the Church,” was all she said, looking at us with the confidence that also said, “Isn’t it amazing that that’s all you need to do?”
On the other side of the same coin, it’s very common to hear parents, grandparents, and friends lament that someone that they love has “left the church”. Unfortunately, that’s also all the commentary that’s needed. Fellow Mormons will immediately understand that this is a great tragedy (even scandal) without any further details about the person’s life or character.
I once heard someone compliment my mom by telling her what good kids she has. She responded by saying, “well, six out of seven isn’t bad.” (At the time, I was a very devout Mormon so I was one of the “good kids”. My Mom was referring to my youngest brother who had chosen not to be Mormon but is also very good person.)
Mormons are mostly measured by how Mormon they are. Of course, they do care about being good people, but being Mormon is much more important.
For example, can you imagine a good Mormon who isn’t a very good person? Chances are good that you can. He will pay his tithing, study the scriptures, do his home teaching, keep the Word of Wisdom, etc. But he’s also might be rude, selfish, judgemental, or inconsiderate. (We’ve all known “good” Mormons like this man.) He might be the subject of gossip and social condemnation within the local Mormon community.
On the other hand, imagine a good person who has decided she can no longer believe in Mormonism. Or a good, kind family that were to decide not to baptize their daughter when she turns eight. These examples would likely cause an outright scandal in the Ward.
Measuring people’s lives by how Mormon they are, has the result that Dan Ariely predicts — Mormons optimize their behavior to maximize the number of converts to Mormonism, and the number of people who stay Mormon.
They become hyper-focused what they perceive as the absolute importance of being Mormon.
At the time that I heard the Mormon apostle’s speech, I don’t remember being bothered at all, but later, I was shocked to realize that his evidence for the “blessings” of the gospel in his family’s life was simply to show how Mormon they were.
Today, I’m not surprised at all. There’s little doubt in my mind that to Mormons being Mormon is vastly more important than being a good person. No matter what they tell you, being Mormon is the highest priority in Mormonism.