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Sociology Lessons


So far, I have studied university level sociology (and a few other similar subjects) three different times in my life. Each course was taken at least ten years after the one before it, so that I had a chance to see how the subjects were changing over the years. And I have acquired three outstanding lessons from my studies of sociology. I would like to compress them all into this one little article.

A. The Fundamental Attribution Error

One of the most profound (and Christian) lessons I learned from my studies of sociology was something called "the fundamental attribution error". It refers to the common error of taking a small foible, mistake, or weakness in a person, and perceiving it as a fundamental attribute (or basic trait) of that individual.

A person may, for example, drop something accidentally, and so we label that person "clumsy". Someone may eat more than you, and so you call that person a "pig". Someone disagrees with the majority on an issue, so they become known as a "troublemaker".

The problem with this approach is that when the label has been put on a person, it causes you (and others) to exaggerate any behaviour that reinforces your belief in the label. (More on this under the section marked "Self-fulfilling Prophecy".) By emphasising the fault, you make it ten times harder for them to change.

It may be that the labels accurately describe some people more than others, but we need to consider (a) whether the label serves any useful purpose to begin with; and (b) whether there is some better way we can assist others in overcoming what we may sincerely regard as their "fundamental" weaknesses.

It is difficult to imagine how calling someone clumsy can be helpful. On the other hand, we may genuinely think that calling someone a pig could shame that person into eating less. (Though it probably would have the opposite effect, i.e. making the person feel like giving up any efforts they may be making already to change.)

One of the best arguments for labelling a person is that it could serve as a warning to others. The Bible says, for example, to "mark those who cause divisions" and to steer clear of them. But even that could end up causing harm if we are not sensitive and fair about how accurate the label is before we stick it on someone. Generally speaking, labels do far more harm than good.

In the interest of accurate labelling, let me suggest that when you find yourself tempted to put a label on a person with regard to a fault which you have observed in that person, that you first ask yourself whether that person has some other more positive qualities which may also be fundamental attributes. A "proud" person, for example, may be quite helpful in other areas, and a very loyal friend despite this one weakness. Is it worth endangering the friendship in an obsession with smashing that person's pride? Ask yourself another question as well: Is it true that this person always exhibits this trait? Are there times, for example, when an "impatient" person shows at least a little patience?

"Always" and "never" are dangerous words when describing people. Most human traits are not absolute. Some people are more selfish than others, and some people are more selfish in one situation than they are in other situations. So the label is almost always "relative" to other factors. Is a miser (or a grumpy, rude, or ugly person) someone who is stingier (or grumpier, or ruder, or uglier) than you? If so, then you must confess to being stingy, grumpy, rude, or ugly in the eyes of anyone who is less stingy, grumpy, rude, or ugly than yourself. So how does it feel having to wear such a title yourself?

Isn't it better to see that we are all faced with a long list of traits to work on, and some of us put more emphasis on improving some traits, while others choose to work on other traits?

The 1950's singer, Kate Smith, had a constant battle with being overweight, and she finally announced that she was, in future, going to forget about her weight, and concentrate on being "jolly". People tend to associate the word "'jolly" with being fat; but it is the more positive attribute associated with that quality. This is a good illustration of the fact that even negative traits have their positive side.

There usually is a complementary trait which we can recognise in people who bug us in one way or another. Lazy people, for example, may also be regarded as easy-going, whereas impatient or arrogant people are often hard workers. When you look at the bigger picture like this, you will be less likely to focus on, or exaggerate, a weakness that someone has. You may actually be able to inspire the person to change rather than making the person feel condemned.

So we have noted that the fundamental attribution error tends to be destructive, and it is more helpful (and more honest) to consider the bigger picture (one which includes a person's good attributes as well) when criticising others. If we do that, we can probably offer more positive encouragement, and get better results.

B. The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

A second lesson that I learned from my studies of sociology was the principle of the "self-fulfilling prophecy". Everything that we say has the potential to influence other people, and cause change. However, the self-fulfilling prophecy is a specific sort of statement which, in itself, tends to generate the very sort of behaviour that you have predicted.

The classic illustration of this principle is a report in the media that a bank is about to close down because it is short of funds. When people hear that, they rush to the bank to withdraw their money, and the result is that the bank collapses and closes its doors, because no bank keeps enough cash on hand to cover all of its deposits. The prophecy has been fulfilled, merely because people believed it.

In a group situation, we have experienced what it is like for people to say that others should have nothing to do with us because we are paranoid and authoritative. The criticisms usually come from cult-busters, who know that they can make those kind of criticisms of virtually any group in the world, and the target group (ourselves in this case) will shy away from them as a result (i.e. become more "paranoid" in their eyes) and we will warn our members to do the same (i.e. become more "authoritative" in their eyes). So just saying that we are paranoid and authoritative tends to produce the desired results.

Negative self-fulfilling prophecies lack any constructive solution to the problem which they predict, at the same time that they actually make the 'problem' (if there really was one to begin with) worse. Because of that, about the best advice we can offer is just to ignore them as well as you can.

We mentioned in the section about the fundamental attribution error, that labelling a person can act as a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you say that someone is clumsy, others will begin to notice every little bump or slip, and they will probably draw attention to it as well. All of this makes the person self-conscious and nervous, especially when in a situation which calls for extreme grace, and as a consequence of that self-consciousness, the errors will continue and even increase. In this way, the prophecy comes true.

The same thing can happen when you label someone a troublemaker. If you shun such a person (or read evil into any effort that person makes to be friendly), then it is going to alienate the person, and that could very easily make trouble between the person and yourself.

The most beautiful person in the world would probably still be affected by negative comments about his or her looks. Because confidence is such an important component of good looks, such a criticism can have the same effect as a self-fulfilling prophecy, in that what you have labelled soon becomes a reality; the person's confidence disappears, and the "glow" disappears from their previous good looks.

Although self-fulfilling prophecies can have a depressing negative effect on people, they can generate positive, almost miraculous changes as well. Take a student who is a very slow reader, and tell that person that he or she is a great reader, and that you enjoy listening to him or her read. The result will be a renewed interest in reading. What you have said may technically be considered a lie (since it is not pleasant listening to a poor reader); but it is only a matter of time before it can become a reality. It is "prophetic" in that you are stating as fact now, something that you have faith for in the future.

Remember that, while compliments can help anyone, they have the most dramatic effect on the people we feel least inclined to compliment. You can spend your life saying, "I told you so," to people about whom you have made negative predictions and observations, or you can experience the thrill of watching people transform into lovely, mature, talented individuals because of your compliments. It all depends on which way you choose to use the power of the spoken word. You can choose to speak life; or you can choose to speak death.

C. In-Groups and Out-Groups

The third lesson I learned from sociology is the observation that "in-group virtues become out-group vices." To understand this, you first need to understand what in-groups and out-groups are. In-groups are, quite simply, groups that you are "in". Out-groups are the "other guys". Often the out-groups are ones that you feel you are in competition with.

Sociological experiments have shown that the very same traits and behaviours will attract different labels, depending on whether the person giving the labels believes the person belongs to the same group as himself or herself, or whether the person belongs to an "out-group".

For example, you could give 100 people a picture of a person who is dressed poorly (or has black skin, or who is not very good looking, etc.) and you could give another group of 100 people a picture of a different person who is well dressed (or has white skin, or is very good looking), and then describe almost any behaviour, and the first group of people will tend to give negative labels for that behaviour, while the second group will give more positive labels (depending on whether they consider themselves to be part of the target group).

It is one of the wonders of the English language that we have "nice" words as well as "bad" words for just about every human trait. Because of this, we can say that people in the out-group brainwash, while we educate. 'They' use propaganda, while we use literature. They are stingy, while we are frugal. They are proud, while we are confident. They are authoritarian, while we are strict. They are disorganised, while we are relaxed. They are unthinking robots, while we are loyal and obedient. They are ugly, while we are rugged. They are vain, while we are beautiful. The list goes on and on. You can think of many more yourself.

It is because of this in-group/out-group problem that labelling "fundamental traits" becomes so dangerous. Unless you can imagine yourself to be in the same group as the person you are describing, your labels are likely to be unfairly negative. It is possible even to think of members of your own family (e.g. your spouse) as a member of the out-group at times (see also Singles or Doubles?); and when you do this, you will say things that alienate them even more.

But, by the same token, it is possible to think of your worst enemies as members of some bigger group that you belong to (the human race, if nothing else!), and in so doing, you can generate a desire to see the best in that person. If you can imagine it, label it, and declare it, you can bring about greater unity, and greater spiritual progress for the person concerned.

The Bible tells us that, "even while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us." In other words, even when we were the enemies of God, he was able to see something in us that was worth dying for. Such love should motivate us to see the best in others as well.

(See also Cognitive Dissonance.)

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