Steep discount

Photo by "backtrust"Imagine standing at the foot of a hill, looking up the slope.  Somebody asks how steep you think the hill is.  How accurate do you think your guess would be?  Or more interestingly, what would affect your estimate?

Psychologist Dennis Proffitt and his colleagues at the University of Virginia have been asking such questions for over a decade.  Among the findings: the hill looks steeper when you’re tired or carrying a heavy backpack.  That probably sounds obvious, but think about the implications.  Your very perception of so-called “geographic slant” is unconsciously influenced by your physical state.  Given what seems like a fairly “objective” question, your brain automatically factors in bodily resources in its subjective estimate of how much it would cost you to climb that hill.

And it gets more interesting.  It’s not just the physical resources that matter.  The researchers found that having a friend by your side will also make the hill seem less steep, and the longer and stronger the friendship, the greater the effect.  Your brain, again without conscious reflection, factors in the supportiveness of the relationship, and the hill somehow seems like less of a challenge.

James Coan, also of the University of Virginia, did a similar study in which people were put into MRI scanners and threatened with mild electric shock (imagine getting that proposal through the ethics review process!).  Long story short: when facing such an unpleasant situation, people did better if they were allowed to hold someone’s hand, and much better if that someone was their spouse.

One way to read such results is to say that we could all benefit, especially when facing difficult challenges, from the added support of others.  But Coan argues that’s not quite right.  The image of people altruistically helping each other in their respective hours of need is not a bad one, but it tends to portray human beings as separate decision-making and emotion-experiencing units, such that help has to come to me as an external resource.  But this type of research suggests something a little different, that challenges our very notion of isolated selves:

the brain stops drawing as great a distinction between ourselves and another person when that person becomes familiar.  When another person becomes a part of our social system, they become part of us.  And they are likely doing the same thing in return.

The people closest to us become part of us.  Once the brain begins taking their support for granted, they don’t just make us better able to meet challenges–they make us less likely to see situations as quite as daunting in the first place.

If you are a part of me, I will see the world differently.

Not every relationship will be like that or in the same degree.  But I wonder: what implications does all of this have for the way we think and talk about “community” in the church?