The past quarter century of research into human psychology and behavior has revealed that, in many ways, we are strangers to ourselves. We are ignorant of the forces that play a major role shaping our decisions. Choices we assumed were products of free will are, upon closer observation, largely determined by biological, environmental, and social forces outside of our control or awareness.
In many cases, this research has overthrown common assumptions about human nature. For example, according to a 1997 study by social psychologist Robert Baron, the smell of Cinnabon and Mrs. Fields cookies in a shopping mall doubles the likelihood that we would help someone in need. We might prefer to think of ourselves as compassionate people, when in fact we were summoned to action by carbs and sugar!
Such findings can be frightening, in that they force us to rethink the idea of sin and human responsibility, even the nature of our personality. We are far more influenced by our environment, and much else besides, than we would ever wish to admit. One neuroscientist, David Eagleman, even proposes upending our legal system: We should no longer consider people responsible for crimes they commit, now that we know how deeply our environments influence our behavior.
Surprising and enlightening as much of this research is, very often it merely confirms what we ought to know already, either by intuition or by paying attention to Scripture. For example, a study by Cornell psychologist Dennis Regan found that after being made to feel guilty, people are nearly four times as likely to offer help to someone with a problem. But preachers and parents have been known for millennia the power of guilt to spur action.
So perhaps the real benefit from all these ...1
Already a CT subscriber? Log in for full digital access.
Subscribe to Christianity Today and get access to this article plus 65+ years of archives.
- Home delivery of CT magazine
- Complete access to articles on ChristianityToday.com
- Over 120 years of magazine archives plus full access to all of CT’s online archives
- Learn more