Be a Berean, not a Bobblehead

Peer pressure can change our perception of reality

After listening to comments from people who were older than me and who I considered more spiritual, I caved. It wasn’t a conscious, “They are saying XYZ and I think they are wrong, but I will say XYZ too so they will still like me.” It was much more subtle. “It must be just me. The speaker must have some deeper knowledge of the Bible that I completely missed on a plain reading of the text. I’m just an ordinary believer. Everyone else is more spiritual. They know better than I do. I will trust their better judgment and let go of my misgivings.”

 

When I think of peer pressure, I usually think about school kids and the push to fit in with the in crowd. But pressure to conform still exists even when you’re too old for playground politics.

In 2005, a neuroscientist conducted a study to determine what happened in the brain when a person was influenced to give wrong answers under peer pressure. Was it a conscious decision to conform or were perceptions actually altered? The subjects were first tested individually. They were shown two different three-dimensional objects on a computer screen and asked whether the first object could be rotated to match the second. As would be expected, the parts of the brain used for spatial concepts and conscious decision making were the most active. Then the researchers livened things up. The subjects were tested in a group, but the other members were ringers who unanimously gave the wrong answers. If the subjects were deliberately choosing to go with the majority, the conscious, decision-making part of the brain should be the most active, but it was not. There was less decision-making activity and heightened activity in the spatial area of the brain. Given these findings and the fact that the wrong answers increased, the researchers concluded that peer pressure altered the subjects’ perception of the problem. To put it another way, peer pressure changed their understanding of reality.1

Now why am I bringing this up and boring you with brain research? Well, let me relate this same problem with a completely different scenario.

Many years ago, I attended a sermon by someone I respected and knew fairly well. But during the talk, the speaker made a statement that gave me a double-take. He said something that seemed wrong. In fact, it was completely contrary to what was in the Bible. This wasn’t just a slip of the tongue but a point that was stressed repeatedly. After the message was over, I joined a group to discuss this sermon. I can only speak for myself, but I have a gut feeling that everyone was wrestling with some form of cognitive dissonance. We were Christians who had some knowledge of the Bible, and we just heard something that directly contradicted a very basic scriptural truth. Would anyone come out and say, “You know, I thought so-and-so said this and it seems the opposite from what is in the Bible.”?

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