For the last few weeks I’ve been trying to see through and behind some of our initial thoughts and beliefs on a few big idea topics in my Story Behind the Story series. We’ve looked at topics of life, death, personhood, heresy, confession and community. In these posts I have, like I have typically done in this blog, challenged our standard way of thinking and sought to examine a topic from a unique perspective. My desire as a writer is to leave people thinking, “I never thought of it that way before.” And as I writer who attempts to write in this way, I appreciate other writers who leave me thinking, “Wow, I never thought of it that way before.” Right now I’m reading a book that has been making me utter that statement many times; it is Shane Hipps book Flickering Pixals: How Technology Shapes Your Faith and it will be the subject of my next blog series as I share some of the thoughts and observations that I have found challenging and invigorating.
Before getting into that series, however, I want to offer one more thought within The Story Behind the Story series: change. The story or the motive behind many of the blogs I writes is the desire to affect change, especially within the institution of the church- whether that is in how churches fill hiring vacancies, what the church can learn from other media outlets, new perspectives on historic doctrines or what is really going on in our Christians fads. Through all of this, I have begun asking the question, what causes change to happen anyway? Is change brought about by merely new information or through emotional connection?
In the end, change comes down to a decision, an intentional decision to change. Perhaps the question should be altered; how do we make decisions?
Chip and Dan Heath explore this question in their book Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard. Taking the image developed by psychologist Jonathan Haidt, they describe our decision making as a battle of wills between an elephant (our emotional side) and a rider atop the elephant (our rational side). They write: “Perched atop the Elephant, the Rider holds the reins and seems to be the leader. But the Rider’s control is precarious because the Rider is so small relative to the Elephant. Anytime the six-ton Elephant and the Rider disagree about which direction to go, the Rider is going to loose. He’s completely overmatched.”
In the end, change comes down to a decision; an intentional decision to change.
How we make decisions, they argue, is similar. We would like to think that our rational side will cause us to make rational decisions, and perhaps it will (at least for a while). But when our emotions are touched, enraged, tickled or offered pleasure, the elephant takes over- even against the rider’s best efforts to make a rational choice.
The power of the elephant is why advertisers almost exclusively cater to our emotional side. When the ASPCA ad comes on with pictures of sad animals while playing a sad Sarah McLachlan song, they are trying to make our elephant sad enough to call or go online and make a donation. They aren’t concerned about making us animal rights activists or lifetime ASPCA supporters, they just want our emotional side to be sad enough to give money before it becomes distracted by another emotion. That’s just one of a million examples.
Ultimately, the Heath brothers conclude, for true and lasting change to take place, the elephant and rider must agree on what direction to take. That can be hard because neither the elephant nor the rider is all good or all bad- we need them both, but both going in the same direction.
What does all of this have to do with affecting change within whatever setting you find yourself in? While my passion just happens to be within the church, you might find yourself in business, in school, in a social organization or a dozen of other places in which you desire to move a person or a group of people to or through a change. What does this have to do with my setting and your setting?
Engage the rider? Or the elephant? Or both?
Most basically, it means that affecting change must include a rational aspect and an emotional aspect. Remember, we have to get the rider and the elephant moving in the same direction. Once the elephant and rider are moving together, it means that we have to continually reengage both the rational side and the emotional side. Failure to reengage the emotional side can lead to it becoming distracted to chase after another idea, feeling or stimulus. Failure to reengage the rational side can lead to a perseverance toward a goal or toward a behavior or change that ends up hurting us with some unintended consequence. Within the setting of the church, the tendency to stubbornly stick to tradition is, in part, a result of the failure to reengage our rational side.
What we find with the church, all too often, is an over-emphasis in engaging the rational over the emotional or the emotional over the rational. Generally, traditional churches over-engage the rational side, while modern (contemporary) churches over-engage the emotional side. Over engaging of the emotional side causes us to lead with our hearts (which isn’t a bad thing) but it can lead us places we wouldn’t end up rationally. Similarly, over engaging the rational side leads us to embrace knowledge and see the world in the light of the things we know but it can bring us to a dismissal of emotion altogether, as well as, a lack of community and a failure to see people.
I’m over simplifying this discussion but I hope you can see the complexity of how we make decisions and make changes in our lives- especially long-term and lasting changes. Unless you are trying to get people to make a donation to the ASPCA, it is vital to understand how our rational and emotional sides work together and against each other in the decisions and changes we make within our lives.
The next time you watch a television commercial, listen to a speech, hear a sales presentation or participate in a church service, pay attention to what part of you is being engaged. Is it the elephant, the emotional side? Or is it the rider, the rational side? Is it both?
The next time you prepare a presentation, a project, a lesson, a sermon or a church service, be aware of what side you are attempting to engage. Are there aspects that engage the elephant and aspects that engage the rider? Additionally, how will you re-engage them, whether in a different way or at a different time in order to keep the elephant and rider moving in the same direction?
Bringing about change is a little more complicated than we tend to believe but if we actually think about the message we are giving and the means through which we are presenting that message, we can engage people to make long lasting changes in their lives and in the settings in which they find themselves.