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Comings and Goings is a blog written by Theology, Formation, and Evangelism Director Charles B. "Chip" Hardwick as he travels throughout the church. God is on the move out and about in the world, working to redeem all things in Jesus Christ. As we join this mission, by the power of the Spirit we see God on the move. This blog contains glimpses of how Chip finds this to be true in his comings and goings. 

You can follow Chip on twitter (@chiphardwick) or find him on Facebook (Chip Hardwick).

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February 4, 2014

Intergroup Attribution Bias and the Left-Right Church Division

A Visit to the Kellogg School of Management (Chicago)

As I mentioned in my last two posts, I had the opportunity last week to attend a short course at the Kellogg Graduate School of Management at Northwestern University called “Leading a Vibrant Faith Community.”  Twenty students from a variety of Christian and Jewish traditions came together to learn about topics typically discussed at business school, but not at seminary, learning from Kellogg’s world-class professors.  The last two posts have discussed managing polarities (vis-à-vis the denomination’s marriage study) and the person of the leader (and the need to be someone worth following).  In today’s post I want to think about intergroup attribution error, and its impact on the church as we become increasingly polarized.


Kellogg LogoIntergroup attribution error came up in a session on negotiation and conflict management led by professor Adam Waytz from the Organizational Behavior department.  (OB is a mash-up of psychology, anthropology and sociology, applied to organizations).  In short, the intergroup attribution bias means that people perceive their own group or side to be motivated by more positive emotions (love the most chief among them) than negative emotions (hatred the most chief among them).  On the other hand, people perceive the other side or group to be motivated by more negatives than positives.


One experiment bringing this bias to life revolved around the aggressive actions by Israelis and Palestinians, and asked each group why the other group acted the way it did.  For instance, Israelis were asked, “‘Why do you think many Israelis support bombing of Gaza during this conflict?’  (1) Is it because of their love of Israel? (2) Is it because they hate Palestinians?”  Israelis answered (1) far more often.  They were then asked, “‘Why do you think many Palestinians support firing rockets from Gaza into Israel during this conflict.’ (1) Is it because of their love of Palestine? (2) Is it because they hate Israelis?”  This time around the Israelis answered (2) far more often. 


The same questions were asked to Palestinians, who (with the same dynamic as experienced by the Israelis) attributed their own actions to their love of Palestine (and not their hatred of Israel), but the Israelis’ actions to their hatred of Palestine (and not their love of Israel).   This dynamic has been repeated again and again in other social experiments.  Since people regularly attribute positive reasons to their own group’s actions and negative reasons to other groups’ actions, misunderstandings regularly multiply and conflicts often escalate.


It did not take me long to think of the current divisions in the PC(USA), the primary symptom of which is the definition of sexual integrity.  My sense is that the intergroup attribution bias is at least partly to blame for our divisions.  So-called conservatives, who understand sexual relationships between couples of the same gender to be sinful, and so-called progressives, who understand these kind of relationships not to be sinful, attribute to each other negative traits while attributing to themselves more positive ones.


At the risk of painting with a very broad brush, my sense is that progressives often attribute to themselves a love of justice.  Conservatives often attribute to themselves a love for holiness.  These attributions in and of themselves do not seem dangerous.  The danger comes in with the attributions each side sometimes make toward others  Again, at the risk of stereotyping, progressives sometimes attribute to conservatives antipathy toward gays and lesbians, while conservatives sometimes attribute to liberals antipathy toward the scriptures.


When these attributions are reinforced by outliers within both wings of the church, and when these attributions are shared and discussed by others on each side of the issue, they feel more and more like fact, which escalates the conflict.


What would happen if we could understand what negative emotions are driving our own group’s behavior, and what positive motivations are driving the other groups’ actions?  I suspect we might be able to take a step toward each other as we work through these conflicts.


Tags: division, intergroup attribution bias, kellogg, leadership, northwestern university, transformational leadership

  1. Dennis, thanks for your comment as well. I'm grateful you took the time to respond, and I appreciate your insight. In terms of specific steps which could help us to overcome our biases...first thing to come to mind is simply to be aware of it. The more we realize this is our bias, the more easily we can look for our own negative motivations and others' positive motivations. Another step that I also learned while at Kellogg last week is to try to manage the polarity, rather than trying to resolve the problem. I wrote an earlier blog post about this (on January 30) and the marriage study that the General Assembly directed the Office of Theology and Worship to produce. My sense is that the more we manage polarities by speaking honestly and lovingly with each other, we are more likely to learn of others' positive motivations, and they are to recognize ours. Hope this is helpful. I'd be glad to continue the conversation on email through Again, I'm very thankful you took the time to post your reaction to the blog post.

    by Chip Hardwick

    February 6, 2014

  2. I am a conservative who believes in what I consider to be the biblical value of faithfulness to my church even when it is sinful. Your insight into negative attribution looks like a good start. In the church, our problem (good people that we are) is that we are so ready to disavow are negative emotions and yet continue affirm our negative attributions as virtues based on objective truth. I firmly believe in objective truth, but I have to struggle with my sinful relationship to the truth and to virtue. In the New Testament Jesus shows his perception of this problem in his affirmation of the law and the prophets, and in his instructions to listen to what the Pharisees say, but not to do what they do. The Pharisees were good people who wanted to be around Jesus, but how obviously had conflicting motives for doing so, and they show the dangers of goodness which should be a lesson to us. But your insight, Chip, could be applied to helping good people overcome their own dangers. The question is how to apply it. I hope you can give concrete examples, sometime.

    by Dennis Evans

    February 5, 2014

  3. Whit, thanks so much for these thoughtful comments. I'm grateful that you read my post carefully and took the time to respond. I was interested to read both comments. First, about the liberal/conservative bias in the church. I agree that "hate" is not the right word to describe the other's feelings about the issues. Maybe antipathy is too strong too. Whether the polarity is holiness or truth vs. justice, I do think we are at risk of attributing negative motivations to others and positive motivations to ourselves. Now, for your comment on the Israeli-Palestinian situation. I didn't intend to make an equivalency between the actions of the Israelis and Palestinians on moral grounds--different people would come to different conclusions about whose motivations are more justified than others. Certainly many agree with your perspective. I was attempting to draw attention to the intergroup attribution bias which is much more widely proven (I understand from my course) than just this one example, which is a classic illustration of the issue. Again, I'm really glad that you took the time to read the post and to leave your feedback. Glad to continue the conversation if you would like at the email address above.

    by Chip Hardwick

    PC(USA) Staff

    February 5, 2014

  4. As a conservative, I don't disagree with your assertion of my impression of what progressives think of the Scriptures, except that I would not use the word "hate" so much as believing that they fail to view Scripture as the authority for faith and practice. That is, in my experience, they do not believe it holds an objective meaning, but in true post-modern fashion, believe that its meaning is in the eye of the beholder. And as a result, I believe they wish to tear down our entire culture and theology which based on objective Scriptural authority. And I think you will see progressives talk about "unjust" structures and point to Scripture as the cause or justification for those "unjust" structures. But as to my own view of my own motivations, while I do believe purity is something we should try to uphold, it is not the purity of those afflicted with sexual sin so much as the purity of our doctrine and sense of authority that I am defending. My motivation really has little to do with those with same-sex attraction because all of us are sinners, and those engaged in homosexual behavior are sinners in need of a savior whether homosexual sin is considered sin or not. Rather it is with the integrity of our faith that I am concerned. If Scripture can be twisted on one issue, it can be twisted on others, and our whole culture and structure of authority comes tumbling down. I have myself commented that I thought that progressives are concerned about so-called "justice" while conservatives are concerned about "truth."

    by Whit Brisky

    February 5, 2014

  5. With respect to your example of the comparative perceptions of Jews and Palestinian Arabs, it does effectively help me understand what you are talking about. But I think it is important to point out that while people may always have this bias even when the motivations of each side are equally bad or good, sometimes the motivations of one side are, in fact, better or worse than those of the other side. Or put another way, sometimes people really are out to get you. With respect to your example, and without getting too much outside the confines of your argument, I think that the Arab perception is more wrong than right. If the interest of the Palestinian Arabs is in a state of their own, at peace with the Jewish state, the best way to get there is not starting a fight with Israel that will only harden Israeli attitudes, it is to recognize the Jewish state, establish the rule of law and human rights in your own territories, reassure Israel about your peaceful intentions, stop calling yourselves refugees, and stop insisting on border concessions which Israel cannot and should not accept. I have no doubt that in short order Israel would lighten the load on them, their material circumstances would improve and, within a few years they would be at peace in a state of their own including the vast majority of Gaza and the West Bank.

    by Whit Brisky

    February 5, 2014

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