Sunday, March 04, 2007

A Lesson in Social Psychology: The Children of Israel

Peace and blessings,

Above pic courtesy of
  • Gustave Dore (1875-1950)

  • While reading the Old Testament and learning about the experiences of the Children of Israel (COI) in the book of Exodus, I noticed a phenomenon taking place that I could not completely understand. Although I understand that the COI had experienced severe hardships (hundreds of years of slavery and oppression), God, using Moses and Aaron, delivered the COI from Egypt and into the land He promised their ancestors. In addition, God performed a multitude of miracles during their slavery and during their journey into the promised land. Despite this, there are countless times when the COI rebelled against the commandments of God. Moreover, everytime the COI complained during their journey, they tried to justify those cmplaints by claiming that they would have been better off in the arms of their oppressors. As someone who is interested in social psychology and how individuals act within groups, one question remained in my head: Given that God met every need that the COI had, what made them (as a group) consistently rebel against God, and prefer being slaves?

    One incident in particular that intrigued me was when the COI started to worship a golden calf while Moses was up on the mountain speaking to God and receiving the instructions for moral conduct that the COI would have to adhere to. What is more interesting is that the COI got Aaron, whom God would ordain as a priest, to build the calf. As an individual, who, liek Moses was called by God to aid in the liberation of the COI, I wonder what was going through his mind when the COI asked him to build them a golden calf. In social psychology, there is a wealth of literature out there that demonstrates the influence a group can have on individuals (even to where an individual intentionally gives the wrong answer although he knows it is wrong!). Also, I know it could have been nerve-wrecking to have Moses on the mountain for 40 days, and the COI unaware of his whereabouts. Despite these circumstances, the COI were able to witness what many people hope to witness, which was concrete miracles performed by God on their behalf. It is almost as if when things don't go our way in the present, it is easy to forget how far God brought us from our past. I am not pointing the finger at the COI, nor am I suggesting that I don't rebel against God despite the things he has done for me, because there are definately times when I do. The point I am trying to make is that there is something to be said for the influence of the "group," or the influence of a perceived "group."

    For instance, I wonder what it would have been like for an Israelite who dissented and initially refused to worship a golden calf. We only read about COI being disobedient as a group, but I wonder if there were some individuals who withstood the group pressure or consensus and remained true to God. The lesson I took from the COI is that we must never forget where God has brought us from, especially in the midst of group pressure to conform and go against God.

    A real life example related to this idea of group influence is the
  • Kitty Genovese murder in 1964

  • Pic courtesy of
  • the Genovese family and artists Alexandra and Rebecca Chipkin

  • The controversy surrounding the murder was that based on reports, it appeared that there were mutliple witnesses of the attack, yet minimal intervention (only one person apparently called the police, and this may or may not have been the same person who yelled something at the attacker). Supreised at the minimal intervention on behalf of the supposed witnesses, many psychologists began to study the factors that would discourage multiple witnesses of an attack to intervene in some capacity. Eventually the terms "bystander effect" and "diffusion of responsibility" were developed and suggested that when a large group of witnesses or bystanders see an attack, each individual member is less likely intervene, because he or she assumes that one of the other bystanders or witnesses wil intervene. Even though this is not an absolute and we may all be aware of examples of where witnesses intervened, this phenomenon should spark discussion nonetheless.

    Although the initial report published in the New York Times in 1964 claimed that 38 witnessed the attack,
  • later examinations of the incident

  • contend that the amount of witness who either saw or heard any portion of the attack was no where hear 38, but instead around twelve. Despite the accuracy of the number of witnesses, this incident raises an important question: What are some of the forces that cause us to be complacent or indifferent? What are some of the forces that contribute to group compliance? To what extent does awareness imply obligation?

    What do you think? Weigh in on the issue and speekonit...

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