Tired of all the vitriol on social media? Baffled by the intensity of others’ (and your own) emotional responses to hot button political issues? It turns out recent brain research and sociological studies offer hints as to why negativity reigns. They may also point the way to more light and less heat. Studies show that our brains are designed to focus on the negative more than the positive in a five-to-one ratio. The amygdala is the region of our brain which scans the horizon for threats, perhaps a holdover from our evolutionary survival instincts. Unfortunately, in times of seismic cultural shifts, negativity gets stuck in the on position.
Stop and think about it. If our gray matter is predisposed to be 500 percent more negative than positive, is it any wonder that scripture is so full of admonitions to give thanks, to trust and to speak words of blessing instead of cursing? God constantly calls us to something higher, to do what comes supernaturally and not what comes naturally. I am no scientist, but perhaps with practice and God’s help, we can cut new neurological channels which might lead to more compassion and less hate.
Christena Cleveland is a sociologist and committed Christ-follower. In her book, Disunity in Christ: Uncovering the Hidden Forces That Keep Us Apart, she offers suggestions as to why we tend to be prejudiced and over-generalize about people who are different from us. She cites a study by Shelley Taylor and Susan Fiske. They describe the brain as a cognitive miser which saves mental energy by quickly grouping people into categories. You know — Asians, blacks, gays, immigrants, tree-huggers, home schoolers, Neo-cons, those who drive Priuses, those who drive Escalades. The list is endless.
Each day, our receptors have huge amounts of data to process, so they cut corners when possible to conserve time and effort. Put simply, the brain has a limited ability to pay attention. Constantly making distinctions is very taxing. Our default solution is to quickly sort and stuff people into slots. “This won’t take long. Tell me if you listen to NPR or Rush Limbaugh. I will then put you in a certain box, as if I also know what you believe about public schools and global warming. There. I just saved a great deal of brain drain.”
The trouble is that people are more complex and unpredictable than we imagine. The Church is thus called to be the one place on the planet where we all work a little harder to overcome relational laziness. And please remember. The Church’s founder is Jesus Christ, who was Jewish, brown-skinned, poor, a manual laborer with no permanent employment and at one time, an undocumented refugee. By the way, he was also on a government watch list. In a word, he was different from us, defying all categories.
In her book, Cleveland points out an embarrassing irony. As America becomes more diverse, U.S. churches are becoming more homogenous (according to one study, 90 percent racially homogenous). At a time of globalization, when the Church should be engaging otherness, congregations are growing more insular. How many times have you heard an adult Sunday school class member say the following? “We all have so much in common and see the world exactly the same way!” Could it be that persons with differing views attended your class but gave up because they could not squeeze through the homogeneity cookie cutter? No wonder the spiritual and intellectual air gets stale in many congregations.
Studies show that when we spend all our time with people just like ourselves, we are less open to new data and new experience. Cleveland also mentions a study of the top management teams of nearly 200 U.S. banks. Research revealed that the more diverse the team (age, gender, education, tenure), the more innovative and effective they were as a group. Innovation and effectiveness — Church, are you listening?
Perhaps the call to overcome bigotry is not primarily about changing our politics; maybe it’s about overcoming laziness. New neural patterns, new habits and new discoveries await us. And for the believer, the good news is that we are not required to do this in our own strength. The Triune God (full of mysterious diversity) eagerly waits to empower us.