Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Be a Berean, not a Bobblehead

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."? 

Sadly the group leader began to justify this questionable statement by using all sorts of mental gymnastics because the speaker had to be right because he was the speaker. Right?  Pretty soon the majority of the group were nodding their heads in agreement. 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."

Looking back, this was very dangerous. My reality was altered by peer pressure, and it wasn't whether object A could be rotated to look like object B. I succumbed to basically exchanging something true for a lie. I was not being a Berean. I was a bobblehead, nodding in blind agreement, because deference took precedence over discernment.

Thank God, we live in the post-Reformation age. There are Bibles on our shelves and a host of resources at our fingertips. We can speak freely and offer respectful dissenting views without fear, at least in the West. (Our brothers and sisters in other parts of the world pay a much higher cost for this privilege.) But, may we not take this for granted. The truth in God's Word is too precious to be handled casually because souls may hang in the balance. May we think carefully and consider what we have heard or read. May we diligently search the Scriptures and see if these things are so. May we buy the truth and sell it not.

The Church needs Bereans, not bobbleheads.

1. Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, Susan Cain, Crown Publishers, 2012, pp. 90-92.


  1. thanks for sharing the Susan Cain book info..I can relate and it is encouraging...

  2. Interesting research Persis. Such good timing for this in light of all the new attention on Beth Moore and the letter of recant by the boy that didn't go to heaven. Thank you!

  3. Goodness, this is so good and so important to say. I think especially as women, we see a man up front with a pulpit and a Bible and automatically presume that if something sounds "off", it can't possibly be because it is. And in some circles, there is such a culture of "touch not the Lord's anointed" when it comes to a pastor. We need to distinguish between respect for the office vs. the man, and take seriously our responsibility to search the Scriptures for ourselves!