Saturday, July 12, 2014

5 Ways People Learn to Work Together

Intolerance and religious tribes
and thoughts on becoming good neighbors

Tomorrow I am to give a talk about conservative and liberal Christians. The jumping off point for the discussion centers on a chapter in Brian D. McLaren’s book a Generous Orthodoxy.

Religious tribes are at war in Iraq. Westerners learn that not all Muslims share the same beliefs.

News from Israel and Palestine reminds us that people of different religious groups fight to the death. And survivors seek revenge.

Some children are in cage-like detention because they entered the United States illegally. Some churches help. Some are silent. Americans associated with different religious tribes have different beliefs about right and wrong action. Conservatives and liberals disagree.

I find the moral psychology research helpful to understanding what separates these two religious tribes. Conservative and liberal Christians are often at war. Finding solutions won’t be easy. Here’s some research and thoughts on the roots of intolerance, respect, Us vs. Them, and why good people don’t help people in need. Got some more ideas? Offer some comments.

Righteous and unrighteous tribes

Religions offer people the right way to live. There are right beliefs and right things to do. There are wrong beliefs and some form of hell to pay for going the wrong way. Religious people often split in two. We learn of Sunni and Shia Muslims divided in Iraq. We learn about Protestants splitting from Catholics – there are more splits to be sure. But when splits were long ago, they are often forgotten—at least by those not living where ancient narratives led to bloodshed.

Emotionally powerful examples of right and wrong religious thinking surfaced when U.S. President Obama spoke to the United Nations in 2012. People are described as conservative and arch conservative. Muslim and Christian differences rise to the surface. The Guardian

And of course, on local levels, congregations split on a regular basis. Some form new religions. Others just form new congregations-- new tribes. Local people split over the usual stuff- disagreements with leaders over right doctrine, money, buildings, and sex.

I have written about Jonathan Haidt’s work on Righteous Minds before so I won’t repeat those points here. See my previous post: Whose side are you on? And learn more at

Us and Them

Ingroup and outgroup research has long established that people quickly identify with their teams even when randomly assigned to them. Place kids in different colored shirts and see them compete as teams. Separate people into guards and prisoners for an experiment and disasters ensue (See study site). You will find a great summary of research in Joshua Greene’s 2013 book, Moral Tribes. His vision of a metamorality may be hard to come by though.

See Green’s website to learn more about moral tribes. There's a discussion of the problem of emotion and reason in moral judgment. And there’s a good review of the common moral dilemma known as the Trolley Problem used in much research.

Binary thinking

Brains have two major pathways. Daniel Kahneman has summarized much research so well in Thinking, Fast and Slow. Our default brain setting allows for quick, automatic, and fast thinking. This mode allows us to operate according to customary ways. It’s efficient to learn habits and let them run without giving them much thought. Once we learn how to tie a shoe, ride a bike, run a software routine, operate a remote control, parent a child, function in a relationship, our life runs smoothly. When our brains learn patterns, our lives are easy. Our lives run on autopilot until...

Throw in a problem and we slow down. Our brains must think. And thinking is hard work. We hate it. We hate change because it requires more work. New software and new electronics are hard to deal with unless they resemble the familiar. New relationships are hard to manage too—children and adults who are different from us and our families require learning new ways of interacting--hard work to be sure. Brains do in fact require glucose- real biochemical resources are used up when people think.

It’s easy to see why people give up when faced with tough decisions. It’s too hard to learn new ways. Leave me alone. I want my old life back. Give me that old time religion. Divorce, leave, separate, simplify… fight for independence.
It takes time and effort to solve some moral problems.

Morality is about relationships.

Relationship problems are hard to solve.

Intolerance never works
…for long. Humans survive in a balance between what’s good for me and what’s good for us. Sometimes that balance is delicate- like when resources are hard to come by. Sometimes the group of US is very small.

How Can People Work Together?

1. Fight a common enemy.

Following 9/11 many in the U.S. identified as Americans. Conservatives and liberals joined together to support the victims and their families and punish the evildoers.  Like many readers, I will not forget that day. Patriotism was strengthened. And for a brief time, more people attended church. This year, a museum opened in NYC to honor the lives lost in the vicious attack. “Here, at this memorial, this museum, we come together,” President Obama said (Quoted May 15, 2014 in TIME) even as Americans are divided about so many issues, including the president’s policies.

What is the essence of many political strategies? Set up an evil and link it to the other candidate or party. Then present your way of saving the people from evil. The downside of literal fighting of course is that many people lose their lives. Survivors lose the lives of those they loved. And many more live a lower quality of life in pain, emotional distress, and poverty.

The war to end all wars began 100 years ago.

Fighting a common enemy offers a temporary fix. But people get worn down by long wars. Fighting a common enemy works better for short term attacks on abstract problems with concrete solutions. You can get a diverse group of people to enter into a short-term fight by declaring war on poverty or disease or even fight the effects of a natural disaster. War should be a metaphor not a reality.

People will contribute money or time and hard work to solve a short-term problem.
Just show them how.

2. Build a greater identity.

 The U. S. is out of the 2014 World Cup. Who can U.S. fans root for? It’s much more fun to watch a sporting event when you care for one team or another. People need to have a stake in the game. Having a stake is to gamble on who wins and who loses. People like to gamble. 

People gamble by investing emotions even when they have not invested money.

And people like to recoup their bad investments- they cope in many ways- sometimes by identifying with a bigger tribe. As one man said, “I’m supporting the American teams.” Usually, American = USA. But not for this man. He expanded his identity to include Central and South America as pitted against any team from another part of the world.

Brian D. McLaren works to build a generous orthodoxy—encouraging Christians to come together as Christian. Christians are indeed a big tribe- a little over 2 billion of the world’s 7 billion persons. And what if people could identify as worshiping the same God- The God of Abraham could unite Jews, Christians, and Muslims- maybe not. And of course, there are many other religious persons-- People of other tribes. McLaren has been accused of being a universalist but he says he’s not. Universalist is one of those THEM labels that goes too far.

Some people are able to identify with a larger group.
Peacemakers help people find a common cause.
People can find common ground.

3. Celebrate the goodness in other tribes.

Brian D. McLaren points out the heroic acts of religious conservatives and liberals. And he points to the good things in other dominant Christian tribes. He attempts to celebrate that which each contributes to just being Christian. Generous organizations celebrate human heroes wherever they may be. Politics aside, the noble aspect of Nobel prizes is to recognize leaders regardless of nationality. CNN heroes are nominated from all over the globe. World leaders who work for peace earn respect among many peoples regardless of their national origins. Think of Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, Mother Teresa- to name a few.

4. Stay at the table

A Palestinian Arab family showed respect to Jewish Israelis who visited the grieving family whose son was murdered by Israelis last week. The rule of hospitality demands respect even in the face of a great loss. But it is not easy. Suspicions persist.

Many conservative Americans understandably condemn the United Nations. Corruption exists. But in the extreme view of some, the UN is viewed as an evil force planning to destroy the United States and take away God given rights. Supporters view the UN as a forum where national representatives can talk. A place where problems can be worked out by discussion rather than destruction. Of course the UN is imperfect- humans work there. UN or not, people in conflict need to find a safe place to talk. Peaceful solutions are hard to find. 
Peaceful people stay at the table. 

When true peacemakers leave, they come back and try again.

5. Slow down and love your neighbor

In a classic seminary study, psychological scientists John Darley and Daniel Batson put the parable of the Good Samaritan to a test in a unique way. They wondered why two religious leaders failed to help an injured man. Was it because the helpful Samaritan wasn’t in such a hurry? The study was conducted at a seminary. Some seminarians were actually asked to give a talk on the story, The Good Samaritan! Others were to give a talk about jobs. The researchers created a condition of hurry for some and not others. And they planted an injured person along the route that the seminarians traveled to give their assigned talks.

What happened?

People in a hurry were less likely to help even when they were giving a talk about the Good Samaritan. Some actually stepped over the victim. Some felt bad about not stopping as if experiencing moral conflict. Overall, 40% offered some help but only 10% of those in a high hurry condition were helpful.

Who is my neighbor?

Love others as much as you love yourself. Do to others as you would have them do to you. Ancient words of wisdom spoken by Jesus and endorsed by many as the path to better relationships.

So much turns on how we answer the question:

Who is my neighbor?

When it is hard to decide what kind of help is best, good neighbors take the time to figure it out.

Technical note
Daley and Batson concluded that the variable of talking about the parable vs. jobs did not have an effect. But Anthony Greenwald offered a different possibility. His Bayesian analysis of the Darley and Batson data suggested the odds of helping for those in the parable condition were higher.

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