• Humanity

"On Freedom" by Cass Sunstein

What choice architecture do you live in?


I have been reading "On Freedom" by Cass Sunstien which opens with a discussion on "choice architecture"- the environment in which choices are made or if you prefer, the external influences on our decision making processes. A simple example is the weather. The weather often influences the activities a person may consider engaging in for the day. A Homeowner's Association may influence one's choice as to whether or not to build a fence or put up a bird feeder and if so, what style. A person who does have children has a completely different choice environment than someone who does not have children. Spending habits are constrained when children need to be provided for and work schedules must closely follow school schedules, unless the parent is willing to spend more on child care or an au pair. The vehicle you drive is more likely to depend on seating capacity and safety than sleekness and sound quality.


We all live under some type of choice architecture, some of which we choose and some which we do not. We cannot control the weather however or what genetics we were born with. We can choose whether or not to have children or be under an HOA. Choice architecture does affect the "bottom line" freedom we experience in life and we do have some control over how constrained we are willing to allow that architecture to be.


The government we live under is a type of choice architecture, supplying rewards and incentives for some behaviors and consequences for others. For many (but admittedly not all) people, a change in the government authorities we find ourselves under is a choice architecture that we could change if we chose to emigrate to another country.



While a government will impose rules on a society in order to impose punishment for actions causing harm to others or a risk to the society at large, religion imposes its own, (usually) much more constraining choice architecture. In fact, religion influences our choices in creating our own choice architecture. It influences our decisions in whether or not to marry, whom to marry, whether or not to have children, whether or not to get an education from a secular school or to receive an education at all, what profession we might enter, how our children will be raised and how our time and money will be spent. If governmental constraints are seen as the outer circle of a target, religion adds further constraints, bringing the focus in a few rings.


Some feel that religion offers them as sense of community, of belonging and of purpose. It is each individual's right to choose to place themselves under a religion, believing the benefits afforded them are worth the restrictions imposed. What is not acceptable, in my opinion, is the use of guilt and fear to coherse a person to join or stay in a religion. If an individual is under the choice architecture of a religion because they fear hell or some other, more immediate punishment by a higher being or because they feel guilty due to some action they have performed which they believe to be wrong (but which has not caused harm to another person or broken a law), I consider this manipulation.


If a society truly values its freedom, if an individual values their freedom, all choice architecture must be examined - including religion.

Most people I talk to lately have heard of Maslow's Pyramid or Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. I only learned of it recently. It can be a good illustration, a measure if you will of how inhibiting an environment might be, whether a society, a relationship or a religious community.

The pyramid was developed in 1943 by a prominent psychologist, Abraham Maslow. It outlines basic human needs, with the bottom of the pyramid representing the most base physiological needs (food, water, shelter, etc), the next level covers safety and security, the next belonging and healthy relationships, then self-esteem, confidence and feelings of accomplishment. These lower four tiers are considered "deficiency needs", the basic physical and physiological needs a human being requires. A person's energy and focus will be be consumed by the pursuit of these "deficiency needs" until they are met. Only after the deficiency needs have been met can one turn their energies towards the top their, self-actualization.


Self-actualization is the realm which makes being human so unique.... creativity, spontaneity, deep thinking and philosophy. But a person must start at the bottom tier, with the most base needs and work upwards in the hierarchy to fulfill these uniquely human experiences. Deprivation of base needs provides people with the motivation to work in order to fulfill them.


The experience I was having in this south Texas religious community was keeping me scrounging at the bottom of the pyramid. I did not have security of body. It was an on demand tool for pleasure. It belonged to my husband and to god, not to me. Its energy was consumed by caring for everyone else but myself.


Resources were scarce. My husband, who was supposed to be the primary bread winner in this Christian worldview, started working full time for only $100 per week. It was difficult to feel secure my food supply with that salary. I was reaching for resources of my own and for education but was often obstructed.


My family environment was not healthy. It was not mentally or emotionally safe.

The third level was unattainable for me. I could not be myself at home or in my social circle. There was no way to attain a true friendship or any sense of connection without being myself. I simply played my role.


I would not be able to elevate myself beyond the second level until leaving Texas, until leaving the controlling religious community. I had to change my choice architecture.

In the architecture I had been placed in with this religious group, I was not even able to use my base "fight or flight" responses. I was in a terrible "marriage" and a controlling cult. I could not fight, I was outnumbered. I could not flee (get a divorce) because that was a sin and I would not only be punished by god, but shunned by my family. I would have no support. And what was worse (as I had been taught) my own children would be harmed by my actions.

What does one do when cornered with no hope for escape?

Thankfully in this situation, nothing harmful to myself or anyone around me. It was a long game of patience, stubbornness and persistence.

Once I had earned a degree and started my own career, I gained resources, security of health and family and property. I even had a sense of confidence and my self-esteem began to grow. I gained a few friends at work as well, people I could be myself around who did not expect me to play a particular role, but accepted me for who I was.

I did not believe I would be able to trust a man again after being under a controlling and manipulative "pastor" for 13 years and married to a mentally and emotionally abusive "husband" for 20 years.

My love and belonging needs remained unmet, until I found my current partner, my soulmate. He had been down this road before, of deconstructing the religion of one's youth. We had both been deceived and harmed by religious groups. We had both recognized that the foundational worldview we had been taught to believe in was a man-made construct. He knew to let me just lie on the bed and cry when memories popped up that I was unable to forgive myself for. He knew that I was constantly criticizing myself internally and so he would never criticize me. He knew that I felt adrift and needed to explore a myriad of ideas to find my own understanding of how the world works. He is always open to discussing any ideas.



He knows me and he knows how to love me. I feel safe with him. I trust him.

I now know true human intimacy.


I have changed my choice architecture. I am able to achieve the "deficiency needs".


I can finally explore the uniquely human top tier. I can finally dream again and discover who I truly am.


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