What if we aren’t the independent thinkers that we fancy ourselves to be?
One of the most troubling aspects of debate in today’s church and society is the regionalism that seems so triumphant. Why is it that certain regions should be associated with, say, gun rights on the one hand, or other areas known for environmental concerns? Why are churches in some parts of the world very LGBT-friendly and others more traditionalist? Why is it that I can guess where most of my colleagues stand on things based on what seminary or university they attended?
Let me tell you a story about a series of experiments. Some were done in the 1950’s and others were repeated more recently. The basic purpose: to determine how much basic decision-making is influenced by being a part of a group in which one or more parties loudly advocates for the wrong answer. Susan Cain describes these experiments in her marvelous book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking. The earlier experiments come from a Dr. Asch:
Asch gathered student volunteers into groups and had them take a vision test. He showed them a picture of three lines of varying lengths and asked questions about how the lines compared with one another: which was longer, which one matched the length of a fourth line, and so on. His questions were so simple that 95 percent of students answered every question correctly.
But when Asch planted actors in the groups, and the actors confidently volunteered the same incorrect answer, the number of students who gave all correct answers plunged to 25 percent. That is, a staggering 75 percent of the participants went along with the group’s wrong answer to at least question. (Susan Cain, Quiet [New York: Crown 2012], 90, emphasis added.)
Notice: a few loud voices drastically altered the ability of people to solve basic, simple problems. When these experiments were repeated under slightly different conditions more recently, Asch’s conclusions were vindicated by a researcher named Bern and his team:
The results were both disturbing and illuminating. First, they corroborated Asch’s findings. When the volunteers played the game on their own, they gave the wrong answer only 13.8 percent of the time. But when they played with a group whose members gave unanimously wrong answers, they agreed with the group 41 percent of the time. (91, emphasis added.)
Once again, the ability to give correct answers to basic questions is dramatically altered by the presence of a voice or voices giving incorrect answers. Cain goes on to note that detailed exploration in the latter study revealed that the brain itself was affected by the presence of the group. She concludes,
Peer pressure, in other words, is not only unpleasant, but can actually change your view of a problem. these early findings suggest that groups are like mind-altering substances. If the group thinks the answer is A, you’re much more likely to believe that A is correct, too. It’s not that you’re saying consciously, “Hmm, I’m not sure, but they all think the answer’s A, so I’ll go with that.” Nor are you saying, “I want them to like me, so I’ll just pretend that the answer’s A.” No, you are doing something much more unexpected – and dangerous. Most of Berns’s volunteers reported having gone along with the group because “they thought that they had arrived serendipitously at the same correct answer.” They were utterly blind, in other words, to how much their peers had influenced them.” (92, emphasis added.)
We are blind to the effects of peer influence. In other words, we are not the isolated “thinking things” (as James K.A. Smith would say) that modernity would claim. All of us are influenced by our communities, friends and social environs, to the point that our brains are actually altered when we are surrounded by others advocating for a particular answer.
If this is true for the basic, simple problems used in the experiments above, how much more could it be true for complex questions like health care, abortion, and churches blessing gay and lesbian marriages?
Right or wrong – quite literally – we are influenced by the people with whom we surround ourselves. This is why dialogue is vital, because retreating into the echo-chambers of our idealogical allies may make us less capable of coming to different conclusions, even though the people around us could be wrong. It’s easier, of course, to only engage with people who agree with us. Life inside the bubble can be quite comfortable. The womb is a cozy place, but we cannot become adults there. And besides, there are higher goals to pursue than comfort.
What do these findings mean for how we should seek answers to the tough questions we face? How can we be sure our convictions are not just groupthink?
At the very least, this tells me that a hermeneutic of charity is always needed. Because it is actually very difficult to determine where my convictions and the convictions of my social location differ, we should be haunted and humbled by this: I may be wrong, even in those those things that I feel most strongly about, and especially if I am surrounded by others with whom I agree. This does not mean we won’t, or shouldn’t, have convictions. But it should impact the way in which we hold those convictions.
What do you think?