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Surrogation

Portrait of Dan ConwayA quandrant topped by a crown with a nine pointed star and a five pointed blazing star The November issue of RiteWorks included an excellent article written by Illustrious Brother Bill Hickey in which he presents some compelling historical data on Masonic membership and offers some very astute observations on what that data tells us. If you haven't already, I would encourage you to read his article. One statement in particular stood out to me, and it is one I'd like to examine a bit further because over my 22 years as a Mason, I've heard it es-poused many times, in various forms. Our Illustrious Brother comments: "these are facts ... you can not argue facts." He further adds: "you cannot deny from the numbers we see here that Masonry membership is on a decline." To clarify, Illustrious Brother Hickey does not state that Masonry is on a decline, rather membership is on a decline. Unfortunately, most of us don't make that distinction.

He is correct, there is no arguing the fact that the number of members has steadily declined since the late 1950's. However, I would like you to take a moment to consider a phenomenon that undermines many organizations and one that is especially pervasive in Freemasonry - surrogation.

Surrogation is a cognitive bias that can best be described by the adage, "when a measure becomes the target, it ceases to be a good measure." Metrics are a way for us to give tangible form to something that is inherently abstract so that our minds can grasp it more readily. But what happens when this metric replaces the thing it was meant to measure? What happens when an organization loses sight of its objective and instead focuses on the metric that is meant to simply represent it?

Ask yourself, how many times have you heard, or even said yourself, in a Lodge meeting, "we've got to get our numbers up," or "if we don't get more members, we won't be able to pay the bills?" Yes, our membership numbers are down, but what has happened is that our focus has become misplaced, and our increasingly limited time and energy is being spent on the wrong thing - improving the metric itself.

Consider for a moment how much of our efforts are spent getting new petitions and initiating new members. Now consider how much of our efforts are spent on engaging the members we DO have, and how much of our efforts are spent on promoting and advancing the message of Freemasonry in our community and the world at large. Is there an imbalance present? Tracking our membership numbers goes a long way to tell us how we may be doing, but it should not be our only measure. What about tracking how long our members stay with the Fraternity, or how many offices they hold, or how many committees they serve on, or how many initiatives each member takes on? Membership figures should not be our principal metric, and more importantly, they should not be our goal.

The "fact" is that we spend a disproportionate amount of effort on getting and initiating new members compared to improving the experience for our existing members. The result is a membership experience that is contrary to our objectives. We have fallen into the surrogation trap. Surrogation is a very common subconscious bias and it is difficult to avoid because we, as humans, have the mental tendency to gravitate toward the tangible, the knowable, and avoid the abstract and the unknowable.

So, how do we prevent surrogation? How do we get out of this trap? Well, we must understanding of how it occurs in the first place. Nobel prize winner Daniel Kahneman and Yale professor Shane Frederick postulate that THREE CONDITIONS are necessary for surrogation to take hold.
  1. The objective, or strategy, is fairly abstract.
  2. The metric of the strategy is concrete and conspicuous.
  3. The individual accepts, at least subconsciously, the substitution of the metric for thestrategy.
Just as fire is extinguished when heat, fuel, or oxygen is removed, so too can surrogation be addressed if one or more of these factors are avoided or eliminated. With Freemasonry, we obviously cannot eliminate our objectives and it is impossible to control the subconscious of individuals, so the most plausible solution is to stop looking to membership numbers as a measure of success or failure, or at a minimum, begin giving a variety of measures equal consideration so that no one single measure becomes the surrogate for our goals.


Daniel K. Conway, 32° KCCH
Venerable Master, Centennial Lodge of Perfection


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