The problem of ‘us’
Reading a couple of books on communication recently, I have been struck by the powerful way in which group identity shapes the ideas we hold - above even self-interest, or reason, or idealism.
You can convince someone to believe or do something if you convince them that 'this is what people like me think/do'. As Chip and Dan Heath say in their book Made to Stick: Why some ideas take hold and others come unstuck: ‘…in forming opinions, people seem to ask not “What’s in it for me?” but, rather, “What’s in it for my group?’
This may be surprising, given that we usually assume that self-interest is people’s principal motivation for doing things. Rather, a form of group self-interest proves to be a more powerful motivating factor.
Heath and Heath write:
People make decisions based on identity. They ask themselves three questions: Who am I? What kind of situation is this? And what do people like me do in this kind of situation?… They ask “What would someone like me do?”
Think of how advertisers appeal to national identity (remember Qantas ads?); or how an ad promoting beer will have a person representing the target audience of youngish males enjoying themselves with the product. It is all about trying to persuade people that purchasing this product is exactly what ‘people like me’ would do.
I wonder about this in church circles, since on the one hand I think that we are meant to think in groups - that's who we are made to be. That doesn't make it wrong. We are meant to ‘let the word of Christ dwell among you richly’. Believing is a group exercise. That’s not to say that we can’t be persuaded to believe something in purely rational terms, but simply to observe that belonging is a very powerful tool of persuasion. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this, of course. This is how we are.
But on the other hand, even in a group that claims to be open to self-criticism, and aware of the human tendency to perpetuate sinful patterns of thought and living, this 'ideas = identity' thing has a tendency to shut down important debate or reasoned discussion. Not thinking XYZ means you are not 'one of us', since thinking XYZ is what 'we' think. If you want to be part of ‘us’, you’ll do or think ABC – quite apart from whether it is the most rational or even biblical position on the table – because that is what people like you do or think.
It makes the business of persuasion very difficult, since often ‘arguments’ put forward are simply rationalizations of the sense of belonging that trumps everything.
What is the way forward? As I have already said, I don’t think the socialization of ideas is wrong per se, neither does it mean that an idea has no truth simply because a group holds it together. But nevertheless: when we understand the human tendency to groupthink, and to set up ‘inner rings’ (to use the terminology invented by CS Lewis), we will want to be alert to the possibility that our ‘us-ness’ is making us blind.
But there are three key principles we need to bear in mind. The first is history. You need to know your history! History allows you to see your own context and to see what is unique about your own context. It makes it possible to see how your ideas are not as universally applicable as you perhaps thought. Christians have always studied the history of the church precisely in order that they might remain humble and repentant.
Second, an opportunity to check our groupthink is afforded by trusted friends who live outside the group. We are fortunate to live in the post-globalization era, in which it is possible to meet faithful Christians who testify to Christ in vastly different contexts. They are a real gift to us – and often able to spot local groupthink a mile off.
But third – and most important – it is worth remembering that the Word of God itself creates the church, and remains its only measure and judge. The church ought always to bring itself to the bar of Scripture and measure itself – not simply by what sounds like ‘us’, but by what sounds like ‘him’.
One thing is certain: if we think that ‘us’ is enough reason to decide anything, we really are failing to practice our own convictions. Ironically, who ‘we’ really are is a group who is ever aware of the human tendency to make an idol out of ‘us’. We aren't really 'us' if we don't get this.
Feature photo: Peter Giger