Jesus and Groupthink

Standing out from the crowd

We’d all like to think that we would be willing to stick up for what we believe to be true, come what may. I certainly do.

But reading Kathryn Schulz’s fascinating book, Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error, I am not so certain that, in truth, I would do.

Schulz describes studies that show how very fearful we are of standing out from the crowd – even on the most trivial of issues.

The power of groupthink

Take, for example, this experiment from the 1950s. Social psychologist Solomon Asch showed people two flashcards at the same time—one with a single vertical line on it, the other with three vertical lines: one the same length, one much shorter and one much longer. He then asked the people to tell him, one at a time and out loud, which line on the second card was the same length as the line on the first card.

This should not have been a challenging task. But the people in the room had – all bar one - been planted by Asch and, as per his instructions, after the first few flashcards, they all began to give the same wrong answer.

The consequences for the lone authentic subject were striking. When the experiment was repeated and the data assimilated, Asch found that three-quarters of the lone authentic subjects gave the wrong answer at least once, and one-quarter gave the wrong answer for half or more of the flashcards. On average, the subjects’ error rate rose from under 1 percent when acting independently to almost 37 percent when influenced by the group.

This is truly shocking.

As I’ve said, none of us like to think that we are unduly influenced by peer pressure, and all of us want to believe that we call things as we see them, regardless of what those around us say. So it is disturbing to imagine that we so readily forsake the evidence of our own senses just to go along with a group.

And this kind of ‘groupthink’ is not a new thing.

Groupthink is nothing new

Schulz says, if we look at the Talmud, the rabbinical text – written over two thousand years ago - that serves as a commentary on the Torah and which is the basis of the Jewish faith, we find – even then - an interesting guard against groupthink. According to the Talmud, if there is a unanimous guilty verdict in a death penalty case, the defendant must be allowed to go free—a provision intended to ensure that, in matters so serious that someone’s life is on the line, at least one person has prevented groupthink by providing a dissenting opinion.

So why are we so terrified of standing out from the crowd?

What happens when we disagree with the ‘group’?

Well, the consequences of standing out from the crowd are severe. We risk anything from being mocked, to being sneered at, to being ostracised or even persecuted.

Schulz tells an extreme story of this. In 1990, she says, an Afghan man named Abdul Rahman converted to Christianity.

Such conversions are, of course, extremely rare in Islamic Afghanistan but Rahman had been working for a Catholic charity that provided medical assistance to refugees, and he came to believe in the religion of his colleagues.

In the aftermath of his conversion, Rahman’s life, as he had known it, collapsed around him. His wife, who remained a devout Muslim, divorced him on the grounds that he was an infidel. He lost the ensuing custody battle over his two daughters for the same reason. His parents disowned him, stating that, “Because he has converted from Islam to another religion we don’t want him in our house.”

All that was bad enough. But then, in 2006, Rahman was arrested by the Afghan police on charges of apostasy and imprisoned. In accordance with the Hanafi school of sharia law, the prosecutors asked for the death penalty. One of them, Abdul Wasi, said that Rahman “should be cut off and removed from the rest of Muslim society and should be killed.” The Afghan attorney general seconded that opinion, urging that the prisoner be hanged. Only after tremendous international pressure was brought to bear on the case was Rahman released from prison. Under threat of extrajudicial (if not judicial) death, he was granted asylum by Italy and fled his native country.

For Rahman, therefore, standing out from the crowd resulted in him being banished from his home, losing his family, risking execution and ultimately being sent into exile.

Jesus stood out from the crowd

Of course, this is an extreme example.

But it is also what Christ experienced when he stood out from the crowd and challenged the beliefs of his time. And this did lead, for him, to execution. On the cross.

As disciples of Christ, we too are called to take up our cross and risk standing out from the crowd. Hopefully without such dreadful consequences.

But let’s all take a little more courage and be willing to risk standing out from the crowd - being proud to say we go to Church, that we are Christian, that we have founded our lives on the Christian faith.

If Jesus had not been willing to do this – and the early disciples too – we would not have received the gift of a faith that has brought such blessing to our own lives and to the lives of others for over two thousand years.

Let’s not allow the groupthink of our culture to silence us. Let’s stick up for what we believe and hope is true, come what may.