Spirit in the Material World: Character, Context, and Grace
In his book The Tipping Point, Malcom Gladwell describes an experiment where seminarians had thirty minutes to prepare a sermon on the parable of The Good Samaritan. The experimenters told half the group that they were running late and had to rush to another building. They told the other half that they had plenty of time, but that they might as well make their way to the other building now. On their way, both groups passed a man lying on the ground. He was moaning in pain, in obvious distress . . . not unlike the man who’d been robbed and beaten in the parable of The Good Samaritan.
Less than ten percent of the group in a hurry stopped to help the man. Some of the aspiring preachers even stepped over him. Of the group that had extra time, over sixty percent stopped to help. All of the subjects were given tests of personality and morality beforehand. These traits made no difference in helping behavior. The only significant variable was how much time each subject had.
Social psychology experiments have replicated these results many times in many settings. Internal factors – such as values and character traits – matter a whole lot less than external variables when it comes to our behavior. For example, most people ignore someone in distress if everyone around them does the same. Most people will remain in a building that seems to be on fire if a person in authority tells them they’re safe. Most of us cheat on tests if we know we won’t get caught and we see other people doing it. Situation trumps morality most of the time.
Cool your jets – I said, most of the time. These experiments also demonstrate that a small percentage of people always go out of their way to do the right thing. You’re one of these exceptional people - I know, because I’ve seen you at the meetings. Nevertheless, Christians have a hard time with the fact that context is more powerful than character. We tend to go to extremes with this information. Those on the far left and right prefer pontification about the importance of values. If you don’t go green/abstain from sex or help the poor/abstain from sex or support free trade/abstain from sex regardless of the situation, you’re a moral weakling. Folks in the middle often over-emphasize context, making Christianity so user-friendly that religion starts to look like marketing. If someone can’t get their grande nonfat mocha enema in the church lobby, after all, they might not bother to come.
Another option is developing more empathy and grace. Instead of attributing mistakes and failures to someone’s “character,” we can try to understand their circumstances. Most of us are guilty of what psychologists call “the fundamental attribution error.” We attribute someone’s behavior to a single character trait instead an interaction of cultural, social, relational, biological, and psychological factors. For example, it’s easier to see Ted Haggard as a hypocrite than a man trying, and sometimes failing, to manage conflicting demands and desires from without and within.
I’m not suggesting that we don’t hold people responsible for their actions; I’m suggesting that we do no more. Maybe we can learn to hold others accountable for specific behaviors, but skip the sweeping character judgments. Maybe we should give more people a second chance. And maybe we should honor everyday kindness and integrity as extraordinary and heroic.