In the 1890 essay “The Necklace” by Guy de Maupassant, a young woman who is driven by materialism and envy unwittingly exchanges ten years of her life for an evening of shallow compliments at a glamorous party. Her desire for conspicuous consumption blinds her to the true beauty of life, and she ends up a bedraggled, poverty-stricken, harsh, bitter old woman, completely unrecognizable to those who knew her only one decade prior. The green-eyed monster of jealousy took root in her heart and drove her to a life of hard labor, a life devoid of gratitude. Her lens, her mindset, so shaped her reality, so conditioned her to focus on what she didn’t have, that she failed to be grateful for what she did have. She was so focused on a perceived injustice that she missed out on the simple beauty of life all around her. The haunting theme of the story bears a poignant parallelism to modern life. At the end of a decade of ultimately meaningless toil, of working to the point of exhaustion, the main character of the story learns that all she had worked for those ten years was completely meaningless—a piece of fake jewelry whose glitter destroyed her life. (Sorry, that’s a spoiler alert there if you’ve never read the story). But ultimately, her desire to fit in with her peers, to become something in the eyes of her others, created a mindset of misery that cost both her and her husband true peace and happiness.
In the last blog, we defined a mindset as a cognitive bias, a systematic manner of thinking that influences our decisions, our actions. We talked about Dr. Dweck’s two mindset delineations, the growth mindset and fixed mindset. People who focus on innate abilities, fixed traits, are often reluctant to take on challenges. They get stuck. On the other hand, people with growth mindsets are more likely to take on challenges and less likely to get stuck in a limiting behavior.
Understanding the foundations of our mindset can help us move beyond the limitations of some of our belief-to-behavior patterns.
We also unpacked some ideas about the human brain, that is associational, social, and autonomic. An associational brain means we run incoming data through an existing grid. What we already think and believe about an experience or a people group influences how we interpret new experiences and new people, any new incoming information. In fact, just the other day, I met someone who reminded me of a very angry person I knew in the past. Even though this new person had nothing to do with the person from the past, I found my brain continually expecting to see the same behavior patterns exhibited!
We have to place that mental hypothesis machine on manual mode in order to give ourselves the mental margin we need to view our experiences through the lens of a healthy mindset.
The Lens of Offense
When the religious leaders of the day were offended by Jesus in John 8, he said they sought to kill him because his word “found no place” in them. “If you abide in my word,” he said, “you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free… Everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin…so if the son sets you free, you are free indeed.”
How about you? Are you abiding, living, rooted in the word today? Offense is a great litmus test for where our allegiances lie.
We talked last week about how mindsets are formed, through an ongoing focus on something we personally place value on. Where our treasure is, there our hearts will be also, there our mindsets will be also. And out of that will flow our actions. That’s the belief-to-behavior pattern. So, our offenses, our allegiances, these all illuminate what’s really in our hearts.
We really don’t hear that word allegiance very often today. It’s typically associated with the school pledge we used to say in class prior to the plague of political correctness that raged through our nation’s public schools. We used to pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America. An allegiance means loyalty or commitment to a cause. And in John 8, those who found no place for Jesus and his word in their hearts were loyal to another cause, not the cause of Christ.
Today, as we look at the second key foundation of mindset, social factors, we will analyze the impact of the social system on the individual, recognizing that the social context may be much wider and more powerful than we once believed. Over the next few weeks, you will become better equipped to evaluate the influence of the social systems and their collective spiritual, psychological, and sociological impact on our lives in the church, the family, and the culture. Most importantly, you will learn how to apply the findings of media literacy so you can, as Proverbs 13:20 says, “walk with the wise” when it comes to matters of mindset.
Along with current research, we will be drawing from two books today, Making Social Worlds (written by one of my favorite Ph.D. professors, Barnett Pearce) and The Science of Social Influence: How the Culture of Media Shapes Our Identity (a book I wrote with attorney and pastor Dr. Joel Johnson). When we first wrote The Science of Social Influence, then called Emerge, in 2009, screen time was already at 7:40 a day, the equivalent of a full-time job. Now, when we add in the ubiquitous presence of social media, the persuasion for conformity, the virtual peer pressure, is almost non-stop.
As Christians, we want to be keenly aware of the subtle (and not-so-subtle) influences bombarding us daily. We live in a generation where we are confronted with hundreds and sometimes thousands of persuasive appeals each day—messages that are designed to sell us a belief, a behavior, or a worldview. And these “virtual” influencers, along with their persuasive images, can be quite powerful. The late Neil Postman once said that the image is all-commanding, that the image and instancy had been raised “to an exquisite and dangerous perfection,” that the screen, the image, had become children’s most accessible teacher and the most reliable friend, a virtual peer whose bias was shaping the world in frightening ways.
And even if you unplug the television, close your laptop, turn off the phone, and shield your eyes when passing roadside billboards, it is difficult to escape the realm of media influence entirely, especially when companies are spending billions of dollars a year trying to influence our behavior and social media influencers are spawning and spinning their collective creative energies to convince you to subscribe to their point of view.
In his first letter to the church in Corinth (1 Corinthians 15:33), Paul writes, “Don’t be deceived: Bad company corrupts good character.” As we will see throughout our time together today, the company we keep, whether physical or virtual, bears heavily on our beliefs and our behavior. Our mindset is tremendous impacted by the influence of others. So a wise man is cautious in friendship.
Let’s look at that second quality of the human brain, its social foundation.
The Brain is Actively Social
In addition to being an associational organ, like we talked about last week, the brain is also a “social organ” that seeks out and engages in development with other people, other brains. God has intentionally created us to be molded in the context of relationship. Our brain is wired for interdependence. I know that’s not a popular construct in America, where we are socialized to see ourselves as these rugged individualists who can do everything ourselves, but we actually do grow and develop and become who we are in the context of human relationships. As UCLA neuroscientist Dr. Dan Siegel puts it, the brain is “genetically programmed to be social…, hardwired to take in signals from the social environment to alter its own internal states” (Siegel 2003, page 7).
The modern Westerner is what we call a psycho-social being, amassing behavior patterns through a mysterious amalgamation of social and psychological conditioning. To understand the self in a vacuum, devoid of social context, is both superficial and artificial. The individual (and the individual’s potential for influence) must be understood within the context of the social world in which that individual dwells.
Within the context of association, our brain uses our social relationships to formulate our paradigms, our worldviews, our mindsets. For example, let’s say there’s a teen girl whose social circle is filled with other teens who have been told that cohabitation is a way to “practice” marriage, an increasingly common and concerning trend today. And, because of the influence of her friends, the teen decides to follow suit. And let’s say that her first relationship was a total mess—the guy was a total slob, maybe abusive or noncommittal, as most cohabiting relationships statistically turn out to be. What does her brain do when she meets the next guy? Her brain makes a predication based on experience: This is a man. He must be a slob. He must be abusive, noncommittal. Her brain assigns a connotation to the man she doesn’t even know based on her past experience with men. Instead of looking at the bigger picture, the whole narrative—that cohabitating couples have higher rates of domestic violence, drug abuse, and lack of commitment, for example—her brain zeros in on the one common factor, the guy, and she automatically send all future relationships through that same explanatory grid. That’s a paradigm, a mindset. The Bible says that he who looks for evil will find it.
So we have to look at the bigger picture here. One experience with one person does not, or should not, blur the lens for every future relationship. One experience does not serve as a synecdochical whole for all other experiences. However, we often find ourselves in these mindset patterns where we are ascribing, labeling, believing the worst instead of believing the best.
These early mindsets can be derived from our families. The family is our first community, and the relationships we establish there can color all other existing relationships, causing us to be either trusting or cynical. For example, when I say the words “love, family, father, mother, home, discipline” you have an immediate thought pattern, a connotation, for each word. If hearing the words creates a negative connotation, then there may be some faulty wiring that needs to be addressed, redefined, reframed, so that the negative mindset doesn’t seep into current or future relationships.
The human brain is continually experiencing, linking, adapting, and responding to life’s challenges. Through these patterns, we continually reinforce what we believe to be true. Thus, we develop a paradigm: “the architecture of how we think, the scaffolds along which our thoughts run” (Pearce 2007, page 60).
Our paradigm is not easily recognized. As one sociologist observed, a fish doesn’t recognize the water it swims in. We are susceptible to blind spots, to delusion, whether individually or corporately. Author John Gardner once said, “Most ailing organizations have developed a functional blindness to their own defects. They are not suffering because they cannot resolve their problems, but because they cannot see their problems.” The late Stephen Covey agreed. In the 8th Habit, he said that this transformation centers on far more than just a new attitude: “If you want to make minor, incremental changes and improvements, work on practices, behavior or attitude. But if you want to make significant, quantum improvement, work on paradigms” (page 19).
What did Jesus say gives away our paradigm? He said that what comes out of our mouth displays what is in our hearts. He said that it’s not just a person caught in an act of ungodly behavior that is sinning, but even the way a person looks at someone else can be a sin. Why? Because our thoughts form our words, our actions, our character. Our words are a mirror of the contents of our soul. Remember, our offenses illuminate our allegiances.
Several years ago, I was teaching in an upper floor of a college, when right in the middle of class, there was a loud crashing sound from a floor below us. My brain scrambled to make sense of the sound; it was loud but unique, something I had never heard before. Several students made suggestions as to what might have happened, and scrambling to make sense of the stimuli and provide comfort my class, my brain quickly ran the incoming data through its associational grid and decided the crashing sound was probably a computer falling off a desk (computers were huge back then). Just as I was ready to move on with the lesson, I saw a massive cloud of smoke flooding the ground below us, and I realized my hypothesis was probably just a little bit off. Once I got my class out to safety, we saw the reason for the sound: A car had clipped the fender of another vehicle at a high speed, had been catapulted off the interstate, and then crashed straight through the window of a first-floor classroom. There was absolutely no prior life experience that our brains could have used to quantify that information, so our hypothesis brains did the best they could to try to categorize that data.
We make sense of our realities by basing incoming information on existing paradigms. This serves to protect us when a car comes crashing through a window, but it can also serve to build a wall around our hearts when we are confronted with a situation that is assessed through a faulty paradigm.
One of the crisis points I see in our culture today is what the field of interpersonal communication calls an identity quake. Identity, says University of Washington professor John Stewart, is a relatively stable “constellation of features or labels that establish social expectations that we have of ourselves and others.” An identity quake is an experience that shakes a person, hence the name, and calls into question his or her identity. This can be a relational betrayal, a realization of conflict, or simply something that goes so deeply against our existing beliefs about ourselves that it shakes us to the core.
Psychology tells us that the individual is a “fundamentally social phenomenon,” that the social realm has more than just a casual or even an occasional influence on the person; instead, the influence of one’s social system is a vital clue to the identity of the individual: One psychologist puts it this way: “We can’t understand what it means to be a person without an understanding of the way in which a person is socially embedded.”
Part of the development of a human being is the creation of the group norms of the society in which the person lives. As shown by early social psychologists such as Sherif and Le Bon, the construction of a group norm “works not at the level of the individual but at the level of the collectivity,” a place where the whole is seemingly unrecognizable to the parts themselves (page 36).
Our social system can influence a wide range of beliefs, which lead to a wide range of actions. One of the foundational characteristics of this fundamentally social self is the power of influence. As one researcher note, “There is considerable concern here that rational, moral, and free-thinking individuals may be unduly influenced by their peer group if they find that their own personal views are unpopular or just uncommon” (page 35).
In fact, much of the early research in social psychology was actually founded on a startling revelation stemming from the social culture of World War II in Germany—that any seemingly “normal” individual could commit social atrocities if he or she were persuaded by social norms or peer pressure to do so. If you haven’t read your WWII history books for a while, dust them off and look for the sobering parallels happening in American culture right now.
In his famous 1975 Stanford Prison Study, Philip Zimbardo found that individuals could enact disturbing behaviors if they felt relatively anonymous and if they believed the behavior was “expected” of him. That is, if an individual believed his identity to be protected and a person of influence placed upon him a clear “standard” of behavioral expectation, the individual would willingly violate his conscience in order to fulfill the expectations of the other.
As Zimbardo says, “Individual behavior is largely under the control of social forces and environmental contingencies rather than personality traits, character, will power, or other empirically invalidated constructs.” It’s easy to underestimate the power of these forces because they are subtle and often unnoticed. Other researchers have countered Zimbardo, saying he was simply analyzing within the “frame of reference” of his day, hence his “power to the forces that be” mindset. But if Zimbardo is looking through a glass darkly, the same must be said of us. Like Zimbardo, the blind spots that we remain oblivious to in the early 21st century may be aptly (and appropriately) mocked by future researchers denouncing our inherent bias to our own lens. Whatever the cultural or generational avoidance, it our behavior is largely governed by factors we are not aware of, and we often tend to delude ourselves into thinking that we are choosing our responses, when in fact, they are largely being driving by a mindset we have given ourselves over to.
Social conformity is our inner desire to look to others for clarification and direction, especially when we are unsure of the accuracy or legitimacy of our own view. This concept of naturally looking to others for guidance indicates an inherent tendency toward socio-biological hierarchies, that is, we naturally desire to look up to someone and emulate their behavior. We see this tendency in developmental psychology studies from the earliest stages of life.
There are two important lessons here: One, we need a strong enough sense of self that we do not look to the wrong sources to guide us, and two, we have a weighty responsibility for how we are leading, influencing, those around us.
The persuasion to social conformity is tangible today. Everyone has a side, an angle. There are completely illogical and unfounded graphs floating around on social media, the all-commanding image Postman talked about, that are intended to force you to submit, to bow the knee, to whatever particular doctrine is being espoused. Listen, you can’t place a statistic in a vacuum. You can’t claim an impact on a people group without giving context to the entire picture. You have to take a per capita approach, so, if you’re trying to use a stat in a vacuum, just stop. It doesn’t work that way.
And using stats as an argument when you’ve never taken a statistics class is like trying to operate a gun without before taking a firearm safety course. It’s going to be sloppy, ineffective, and off target. Do your homework, or better yet, use your social media accounts and your realm of influence to promote the truth, the way, the life. There really is no my truth or your truth. There’s just the truth. That’s really what we need to unite around.
The airwaves are filled with these sociopolitical labels that are intended to divide, not to unify, to usher in chaos, not peace. Remember, we know a tree by its fruit. To find the root, check the fruit against Galatians 5, the fruit of the spirit. Does the outcome, the end goal, promote love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control?
In America, we like to think of ourselves as individualistic, nonconformist, and completely resistant to any type of social pressure. However, as any marketing executive will agree, companies spend billions of dollars on advertising campaigns precisely because humans are capable of persuasion. Companies persuade us to buy their products, but what does this “persuadability” mean in an everyday, social context?
American psychologist Elliot Aronson refers to human beings as “a social animal.” His evolutionary basis for the title notwithstanding, Aronson’s work summarizes our propensity for influence. Humans are indeed social creatures; we were fashioned in the image of a relational God, and we have been given directives that pertain to those relational factors.
Now, this “social nature” of our brains can work for or against us depending on context. One of the most well documented studies on socialization (termed Social Learning Theory) was done by Albert Bandura, a Stanford University professor, in 1961. In his famous Bobo Doll study, Bandura showed that children who watched aggressive acts were more likely to internalize and imitate aggression. That is, if children watched violence, they were more likely to become violent. You can still watch his early work on YouTube for now, at least until some snowflake movement decides to flag them as aggressively anti-media propaganda. But I digress.
At the time of Bandura’s study, many researchers believed that viewing violence was cathartic, therapeutic—that viewing violence would “drain” the viewer’s aggressive drive and keep the viewer from engaging in violent behavior. However, Bandura’s study showed that exposure to aggressive behavior increased the likelihood of imitating that behavior. Since Bandura’s day, there have been almost 1,000 studies that support the idea that exposure to violence increases the likelihood of violent behavior.
Again, like most studies in social science, we could have learned our lesson from digging a little deeper into the Bible. There is a great deal of evidence for our social influence, our persuadability, in the fields of science and sociology, but even if those fields were completely silent on the topic, we could already consider ourselves warned. The Bible is filled with examples of the powerful influences of our social surroundings. What does the word say about anger? Proverbs 29:11 says a fool gives full vent to his anger. Proverbs 22:25 says not to make friends with a hot-tempered person, one easily angered, or you may learn his ways and get yourself ensnared.
There are levels of persuadability, and these depend on the amount of value we personally ascribe to the given persuader. We have micro level influence, our closest relationships and interactions, such as family, friends, and neighbors with whom we spend the most time. Next, we have the mezzo level, meaning middle or moderate, which is the slightly larger system such as a church setting, a city’s culture, a youth group, or a school environment. Finally, we have the macro level of influence, which is represented by the largest social system of influence such as our country or governmental system. All of these layers have the potential for influencing our lives.
It used to be that the driving forces behind identity formation were the church and family, but now it’s school and music and social media that are often serving as the driving force behind identity shaping. As believers, we have got to learn to read through the misinformation, the labels, the lies, and find our identities in Jesus. Colossians 3:1-17 is a powerful reminder of what that identity looks like.
As Christians, we’ve got to be wise with what we see with our eyes, be clear with what we hear with our ear, and be smart with what we allow in our heart.
We have to find our identity not in our anger, not in our vengeance, not in our history, not in our appearance, not in our socioeconomic status, but in Jesus.
And, as Christians, as believers, our mindsets needs to be more resilient, more in alignment with and allegiance to the kingdom of God and less like less like an easily offended snowflake who vents and complains about every offense on social media. Maybe you’ve heard the saying that complaining is the language of victimhood. Ouch, I know. If you find yourself complaining, make a determination to assess your mindset and stop putting your amen to thoughts and patterns that are keeping you from walking in victory.
Remember how mindsets are formed, through a focus on something we personally place value on? Where our treasure is, there our hearts will be also. There our mindsets will be also. And out of that will flow our actions. So, our offenses, our allegiances, these all illuminate what’s really in our hearts.
Can I give you a little homework?
Sociologists say that recognizing human culture is as difficult for humans as it is for a fish to recognize the water he is swimming in. In other words, our culture is so deeply embedded within us that we fail to notice it—unless something brings it to our attention. This week, assess your influences by the micro, mezzo, and macro levels of culture. Do you see some of these influences in your own life? If so, is the potential trajectory of influence you see unfolding before you positive or negative? If the latter, what steps might you take to turn that tide?
Over the next few days, your total media exposure from all sources. After one week, look at the input objectively and assess whether you are satisfied with the level of exposure. Try looking at time spent creating content, times spent consuming content, interacting with others, competing with others in games, and what we call sofalizing, observing others without interacting. Which is really just creepy when you think about it. After you take a careful inventory of your screen time, reflect on your consumption habits and anything you’d like to change for next week. And instead of just being consumers of media, let’s be producers of media. Let’s flood the airwaves with the truth of God’s word.
If you’re a believer listening to this show, I want to encourage you to examine your mindset and your fruit in light of John 8. Our offenses illuminate our allegiances. Let’s be on guard against posts and conversations that are intended to divide, to deceive, to destroy. Let’s avoid contaminating the truth with adjectives like my truth and your truth. Let’s steer the ship clear of these sociocultural fabrications. Instead, I want to encourage you to use the airwaves this week to spread truth, not misinformation, truth, not hyperinflated emotionalism. Just truth.
Like the main character in Guy de Maupassant’s essay, may we reverse our misdirected mindsets so that both individually and corporately we can discover lasting hope, joy, and unity. And may these revelations enable us to act wisely into the communication opportunities presented to us each day within our realm of influence.