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The Social Psychology

of the Origins Debate

A Weblog Series published on An Evangelical Dialogue on Evolution

Marlowe C. Embree

Edited by:
Steve Martin

Document Version: 1.1

Last Updated: April 7, 2009

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The Social Psychology of the Origins Debate

Table of Contents

I. Overview of the Author and Series ..................................................................................................................3

II. The Social Psychology of the Origins Debate: Introduction............................................................................4
III. The Origins Debate through the Lens of Piagetian Theory .............................................................................5
IV. Ingroup-outgroup Bias in the Origins Debate: Part One .................................................................................7
V. Ingroup-outgroup Bias in the Origins Debate: Part Two.................................................................................8
VI. Personality Diversity and Cognitive Modes in the Origins Debate: Part One.................................................9
VII. Personality Diversity and Cognitive Modes in the Origins Debate: Part Two..............................................11
VIII. The Social Psychology of the Origins Debate: Conclusion ...........................................................................12

The Social Psychology of the Origins Debate

I. Overview of the Author and Series

Marlowe C. Embree teaches psychology at the University of Wisconsin Colleges. He is currently conducting some
original research on whether personality differences affect a person’s conclusions regarding creation and evolution,
and how likely they are to change their views. Between September 14, 2008 and October 5, 2008, he published a
seven-part series on "The Social Psychology of the Origins Debate" on the weblog An Evangelical Dialogue on
Evolution. Articles in the series included:

1. The Social Psychology of the Origins Debate: Introduction published on September 14, 2008.
2. The Origins Debate through the Lens of Piagetian Theory published on September 16, 2008.
3. Ingroup-outgroup Bias in the Origins Debate: Part One published on September 21, 2008.
4. Ingroup-outgroup Bias in the Origins Debate: Part Two published on September 24, 2008.
5. Personality Diversity and Cognitive Modes in the Origins Debate: Part One published on September 28,
6. Personality Diversity and Cognitive Modes in the Origins Debate: Part Two published on October 1, 2008.
7. The Social Psychology of the Origins Debate: Conclusion published on October 5, 2008.

The Social Psychology of the Origins Debate

the reason lies, not in the nature of the evidence as

II. The Social Psychology of the such, but rather in the nature of human psychology -
particularly, the social psychology of how conflicts of
Origins Debate: Introduction this sort are generated and managed. Students of so-
Historically, the field of psychology has seemed as called “intractable conflict” note that there are certain
threatening to many Christians as the field of biology. kinds of conflicts that can seem almost irresolvable by
This is due, in no small measure, to the influence of ordinary means, disputes that take on a seemingly
early watershed figures like Sigmund Freud and John permanent life of their own.
Watson, who made no secret of their atheism and
failed to separate their personal views on religion from Series Overview
their professional theorizing and research. As an Over the next few weeks I will be posting a series of
unfortunate result, despite the attempts of individuals articles that will examine the origins debate through
like William James and Gordon Allport to bridge the three different “psychological lenses”. My hope is that
gap, roughly the first half of the history of academic this will shed light on the conflict and offer
psychology was characterized by the perception that constructive suggestions about how it might be
psychology and religion were at odds, providing possible to work toward the beginnings of a resolution.
conflicting or even diametrically opposed views of the For the record, I am an evangelical Christian who has a
human condition. Ph.D. in social psychology from a secular institution
and who is comfortable with the conclusions and
Positive Interaction Between Psychology and theories of mainstream science. I attended a college
Religion whose official motto was pro scientia et religione - and
Contemporary psychology views religion very believe it is entirely possible to affirm both without
differently. Interest in the psychology of religion is reservation.
very much on the rise, and the emerging consensus
within that subfield is that religion is a force for good, This first article in the series will consider the question
not for evil, in the world - though obviously religion, of how attitudes and beliefs are formed in the normal
like any other human activity or institution, can be process of intellectual growth, as seen through the lens
subverted and used for destructive ends. There can be of Jean Piaget’s classic formulation of cognitive
little doubt that, in most situations, religious faith and development. The next two articles will ponder the
mental health are positively, not negatively, correlated. formation of biases and prejudices, with a view to
Similarly, faith appears to facilitate physical health understanding psychological forces that generate
(including recovery from illness), social cohesion, and stereotypic understandings of social groups. The
even tolerance for diversity. Contrary to the stereotype following two articles will examine the potential role
that a committed faith means bigotry, one writer has of differing thinking styles and related personality
coined an opposite motto - “The more orthodox, the factors on the question of why some people become
more tolerant” - to summarize what emerging research evolutionists and others become creationists, or why
actually indicates. some people change their minds about such matters
while others do not. I will then wrap up the series with
Psychology and the Origins Debate a modern-day parable.
As a result, psychology may be able to offer
considerable insights into how individuals and groups Since most of the readers of this series may not have a
address and respond to the “origins debate”. The focus strong background in psychology, I’ll do my best to
of the discipline of psychology is not to seek a avoid academic jargon. Yet, expect an introduction to a
resolution of that debate, of course, although modern few multisyllabic, potentially larynx-choking technical
psychology is forging increasingly powerful and terms like schemata, assimilation, accommodation,
important links to mainstream biology and the normative influence, cognitive modes, hemispheric
importance of evolutionary psychology is on the lateralization, and such like. They’ll come your way in
upswing. Rather, psychology’s contribution lies in manageable doses, and will help you to stretch your
helping us understand why and how people continue to vocabulary, which is good for everyone (research
disagree about matters of this kind. indicates that a good vocabulary helps prevent the risk
of Alzheimer’s disease in later life).
Despite an overwhelming consensus about the question
among the mainstream scientific community, the Feedback Welcomed
origins debate rages unabated within the wider culture, Since the spirit of this Web resource is to generate
with few signs of any significant resolution. Perhaps dialogue, I’m ending each of these articles with some

The Social Psychology of the Origins Debate

questions that I hope will serve as a springboard for like “mini-theories” or “mini-paradigms”, and can
discussion. I invite regular contributors and Web include so-called “metanarratives” or “superstories”
lurkers to respond to these questions or to generate that provide a comprehensive explanation of all of
additional questions of their own. I’ll make a serious reality. As such, religious (and secular) views of the
attempt to reply in a timely manner. My philosophy of nature of ultimate, metaphysical reality are types of
education is well summed up in the pop culture phrase, schemata.
“we may not have it all together, but together we have
it all” - as a member of a community of equals, I’m What differentiates adults from children, to Piaget, is
eager to learn from you and to pool our resources to the development of increasingly sophisticated,
explore these issues further. increasingly nuanced, increasingly fruitful, and
increasingly effective schemata. There is a detailed set
Questions for Discussion of age-based predictions (a so-called stage theory) that
1. Do you agree with my perception that many outlines how Piaget believes all of us develop our
Christians find psychology as threatening as biology? schemata as we move from infancy to adulthood,
Why or why not? If so, why do you think this is so? though this isn’t our primary concern here.
Interestingly, the Apostle Paul hinted at a similar idea
2. Contemporary psychology is increasingly wedded to when he wrote, “When I was a child, I thought like a
the materialist (epiphenomenalist) idea that child, but when I became a man, I gave up childish
consciousness can be fully explained in material terms ways”.
– that we are “just computers made of meat”. This is
(or at least seems) incompatible with traditional Schemata are internal and mental abstractions, but they
Christian assertions (though not necessarily with the are developed to enable us to deal effectively with
idea of the physical resurrection). Any thoughts about concrete events of an external and phenomenal nature.
this? This interplay between schemata (our pre-existing
understandings or conceptualizations of reality) and the
I look forward eagerly to your responses, trusting that data of concrete experience is the way in which,
you will be charitable! As the stereotypic sheriff once according to Piaget, our schemata grow and mature.
told a group of would-be voters at election time, “If
you like me, I want you to go to the voting booth Assimilation
tomorrow and put a big X in front of my name. If you Two different processes describe how schemata and
don’t like me, use a small x.” experience interact. In the first of these, assimilation,
pre-existing schemata are “imposed” upon the data of
experience. In simple terms, we see what we expect to
III. The Origins Debate through see, paying attention to relevant information (that
which confirms or supports an existing schema) and
the Lens of Piagetian Theory discount (or fail even to notice) irrelevant or
To understand how people form and maintain a point disconfirming evidence (particularly that which calls a
of view on the origins debate, it may help to step back prior schema into question).
and ponder how they form and maintain positions on
anything. This can help distinguish content issues While an overemphasis on assimilation can lead to
(what do you think?) from process issues (how do you closed-mindedness or rigidity of thought, as well as
think?) to avoid problems that emerge when the two prejudice and bias, in more moderate doses it plays a
levels are confused – as in the famous instance of the very important role in intellectual development.
schizophrenic who ate the restaurant menu and then Without assimilation, our ideas would be subject to
complained that it was not, as advertised, “tasty and change without notice at any time and would manifest
nutritious”. Piaget’s famous theory of intellectual no stability - in theological terms, we would be subject
development, outlined below, is an important and to “every wind of doctrine”. Without assimilation, we
classic take on this set of issues. could not make use of the schemata we have, and
indeed might well experience total disorientation. In
Schemata and Intellectual Development the famous words of William James, the world might
To a Piagetian theorist, intellectual growth and seem to us, as James hypothesized it did to an infant,
development come through the refinement of so-called “a bloomin’, buzzin’ confusion”. Without schemata
schemata. A schema is a way of thinking about or (and the process of assimilation that underlies and
understanding the world, a “lens” or “window” supports it), we could not think or reason at all.
through which one views reality. Thus, schemata are

The Social Psychology of the Origins Debate

Accommodation accommodation (mental flexibility), Piaget’s theory

As long as the data of experience (or other indirect predicts that people faced with distressing anomalies
forms of data, such as those drawn from the experience will initially resist a change to their schemata (since
of others whom we have reason to trust) confirms our maintaining relative stability in our thinking is
existing schemata, there is no reason to alter our essential both to good mental health and to our ability
schemata or to move out of “assimilation mode”. to maneuver in a complex world), but will then -- after
Sooner or later, however, all of us encounter a “delay” or “gap” during which the balance between
anomalous information that cannot easily be assimilation and accommodation is on a knife-edge --
assimilated to an existing schema. (Think of a person will suddenly, sometimes even catastrophically, shift
who believes, for whatever reason, that red-haired perspectives and alter one’s prior schemata. This
people are evil, but who then meets an altogether alternation between “stubborn adherence” to a new
admirable and saintly redhead.) While anomalies in schema and “radical abandonment” to the challenge of
small numbers can be explained away with relative a new schema is characteristic of all mental
ease (maybe she is a skilled hypocrite, or maybe she development, Piagetians believe.
has simply dyed her hair red and thus isn’t a “real”
redhead), if the number and gravity of anomalies Implications for the Origins Debate
mount, the discrepancy between schemata and The battle between creationist and evolutionary models
experience increase to the point that there is increasing of biological (including human) origins can be seen
pressure to come to terms with the storehouse of through the lens of this Piagetian framework. (Hence,
anomalous data. of course, Piaget’s model is itself a schema - or, as he
might have suggested had he thought of it, a “meta-
When the pressure to do this becomes intolerable, a schema” or “super-schema” that explains the
person shifts - often with surprising suddenness - to the development of all other schemata.) The theory itself is
opposite process of accommodation. This represents an neutral about the direction of probable attitude change,
adjustment in (if not a wholesale abandonment of) an but given the fact that the creationist framework is
existing schema to bring it in alignment with more likely to play the role of the pre-existing schema
anomalous information. If sufficiently radical (in for believers, as well as the current overall state of the
situations where one overarching schema is abandoned empirical data base (though ID theorists might
in favor of a dramatically different or disagree!), the “evolutionary conversion” is probably
incommensurable one), this change may take on the the more likely of the two. (I have no direct data to
outward features of a sudden “conversion”. support this contention and would welcome replies
from anyone who might have such data: given that
“Conversion” movement in both directions probably does occur, how
While, as an evangelical, I believe that true conversion frequent is either type of change?)
in the Scriptural sense of the term - call this big-C
Conversion -- is not humanly explicable and requires a It can be argued that the theological schemata of faith
supernatural referent, there is little doubt that dramatic (belief in an eternally sovereign and personal God, in
viewpoint shifts of various kinds, which we might call the universality and intractability of human sin, in the
little-c conversions, have an obvious Piagetian unique redemption offered by Christ, in the necessity
explanation. Thus, there are political “conversions”, of individual salvation, and in a “high” view of
conversions to atheism or agnosticism, and the like. Scripture) can be kept logically distinct from the
Some gay rights activists talk about “gay conversions” scientific schemata that involve proximal and
as a metaphor for the radical self-redefinition that may mechanistic questions of secondary causation as
precede or accompany “coming out”. In essence these related to biological origins. In short, believing (as I
are all schematic or paradigm shifts of a dramatic and do) in the God of the Bible does not, in itself,
sudden nature; they are typically preceded by a long necessitate either belief or disbelief in evolution,
period of hidden struggle as the two Piagetian though atheists presumably have no choice but to
processes battle for supremacy. Even true religious accept the evolutionary paradigm: the EC position need
conversion partakes of these processes, though from a not be a “way station” on the road to skepticism,
supernaturalist perspective they are not fully or nihilism, and irreligion. As a result, updating one’s
reductionistically explained by them. schemata with respect to the biology of origins may
have no inevitable impact on one’s theology of origins
Since intellectual development (the ongoing - a topic to be explored in a subsequent article.
enhancement of our schemata) depends on a delicate
balance between assimilation (mental stability) and

The Social Psychology of the Origins Debate

Yet, without an attempt to understand another’s

Questions for Discussion viewpoint “from the inside”, and without unconditional
1. For those among the readership who have changed respect for the other’s humanity and fundamental
their minds about biological origins over the years, do dignity, little intellectual or social progress can be
you see evidence in your own intellectual narrative that anticipated. Visser t’Hoeft had it right, in my view,
Piaget’s concepts can explain your experience? Were when he wrote, “The essence of dialogue is not that we
your changes in belief or attitude initially fostered by relativize our convictions, but that we agree to accept
awkward, anomalous information that you could not one another as persons.” Yet the social psychology of
easily explain? Did you initially resist the implications how we perceive those who differ from us very easily
of that information? Did you experience a sudden shift gets in the way of that essential attitude. In this article
in viewpoint at some later time, perhaps showing the (and part 2 to be published later this week) we will
“straw that broke the camel’s back” effect in your own examine the processes that lead to prejudice and
life? discrimination.

2. Do you experience or perceive this process to be Ingroups and outgroups: The Basics
irreversible, for yourself or for others you have Social psychologists have, for decades, utilized terms
observed? Piaget might argue that it is rare (if not like “ingroup-outgroup bias” to explore the ways in
impossible) for a person to move backwards in this which we perceive and respond to people who are
process of intellectual development, since schemata either similar to or different from us. In one classic
always become more comprehensive and complex study college students were shown two abstract
(never less so). Is there anyone among the readership paintings and asked which they preferred. Most
who “veered and tacked” back and forth between students had only a slight preference and probably did
creationist and evolutionist postures? not have much, if any, emotional investment in this
question. Yet, when divided into groups on the
3. Do you agree with me that biological (scientific) supposed basis of this preference, they showed biases
schemata can be kept distinct from theological against those who had chosen the other painting and
schemata, in that beliefs in one realm do not directly or preferential treatment toward those who had chosen the
necessarily dictate one’s views in the other realm? same painting as they had. If such minimalist
“Distinct” does not mean “entirely separate”, of course. influences can shape behaviors and attitudes so
How, in your view or your experience, do the two sets dramatically, imagine the potential impact of
of schemata best inform or influence one another? discovering that someone is -- like or unlike you -- a
“creationist” or an “evolutionist”, especially if these
are matters of great importance to you!
IV. Ingroup-outgroup Bias in the
Group membership can drive the formation of
Origins Debate: Part One prejudicial attitudes in two different ways. First, we
Many social analysts would agree that we live in an can understandably come to believe that those in
increasingly polarized culture. Signs of social groups to which we belong are valid sources of insight
fragmentation are not difficult to observe, such as the and information. Because we know and trust those who
much-vaunted phenomenon of “Red vs. Blue we see as similar to ourselves, we invest their views
America”. William Strauss and Neil Howe have with a greater degree of certainty, validity, and
borrowed the term “cultural unraveling” to summarize objectivity than they perhaps deserve. This includes
their view of this increasingly disentangled, tribalistic their views of those who belong to other groups.
cultural trajectory (a pattern that, incidentally, they Conversely, we tend to be skeptical of information
believe recurs every eight decades or so, right before presented to us by those who differ from ourselves.
the emergence of a significant crisis experience that (Every semester at the university, I face some students
reunites the culture - stay tuned over the next decade to - usually a minority - who are deeply skeptical of
discover whether they were right). anything I say because, after all, I am a teacher - and
all teachers are suspect.)
In examining the origins debate, the contributions of
social psychologists who have extensively studied the Second, all social groups have informal social rules
origins of prejudice and stereotyping should not be and norms, which are often more powerful than
neglected. Most readers would probably agree that formally written and enforced rules. These informal
“creationists” and “evolutionists” rarely seem to expectations reflect “the way we do things” (from this
understand (let alone value and respect) each other. it is only a small step to “the way everyone ought to do

The Social Psychology of the Origins Debate

things”) and, because these are often unarticulated and sympathetically into the world of the “other” (those
unexamined, are all the more powerful (fish don’t who hold sharply differing views about matters you
know they are wet). Thus, we become prejudiced hold dear, perhaps including your perspective on the
because we trust those who are like us (so-called origins debate)? Setting aside the question of whether
“informational influence”) and also because we want to you think they are right or even whether you think their
fit in with those who are like us (“normative views are defensible, can you borrow a leaf from the
influence”). counselor’s notebook and use “active listening”
methods to be accurate in summarizing their views in a
Perceptual effects way the others would accept and affirm, using terms
Perhaps most frighteningly, our ability to be accurate and mental frameworks acceptable to them? (It’s
in perceiving others - never mind conceptualizing harder than it sounds!)
about or acting upon our perceptions - depends heavily
on these group membership factors. The classic terms 2. Mortimer Adler once famously wrote,
“leveling and sharpening” have often been used to “Comprehension should always precede criticism.”
characterize these tendencies. We are aware of the Yet, it’s easy to confuse a stereotypic understanding of
diversity among groups to which we belong, and another’s views, as seen from the safety of an
readily recognize the individuality and uniqueness of outsider’s vantage point, with a thoroughgoing and
those who are fellow members of an ingroup. But, honestly compassionate insider’s understanding. David
when looking at those who are different from us Thompson calls this being a “moral tourist” - flitting
(members of an outgroup), we can easily lump them all (with some unknown mixture of curiosity and
together without intending consciously to do so. We condescension) across the surface of another’s world
have a strong tendency to see these people as “all without engaging it seriously as an equal, “one heart to
alike” and to be relatively blind to distinctions between another”. Where would you say you are on this
them that would be obvious to those inside that group. continuum?

Even if we do not take the further step of emphasizing 3. Given that Evolutionary Creationists (EC) have
the negative ways in which outgroup members are experienced a mental paradigm shift – whether (no pun
alike, these tendencies can strongly shape our attitudes. intended) evolutionary or revolutionary in character –
Research on eyewitness testimony has repeatedly why doesn’t this group do a better job of serving as a
shown that witnesses to a crime (or other event) who bridge between the other, more polemic groups in this
belong to a distinctly different social group than the social debate? It would seem that ECs are uniquely
suspect (or other target person) are much less reliable qualified as mediators and “translators”, but it also
in remembering and reporting that individual’s doesn’t seem to be happening. Why not, in your view?
appearance and behavior than are members of the same
social group. In the most extreme instance, outgroup V. Ingroup-outgroup Bias in the
members can go completely unnoticed except for times
when they violate the rules or confirm prejudicial Origins Debate: Part Two
expectations. (As the Hallmark card jokingly puts it, In the previous article, the basics of the social
“One of the great things about turning 50 is that you psychology of ingroups and outgroups was covered. In
can go to the mall and be invisible to anyone under this follow-up, we’ll be taking a more in-depth look at
25.” I’ve had more than one teenager actually try to some of the reasons why social groups sometimes fail
walk through me and then express astonished surprise to understand or empathize with one another.
that there actually was a human being there at all.)
Ingroup Bias and Outgroup Bias: Two Separate
Questions for Discussion Phenomena
This week’s questions have a bit of an inevitably The work of contemporary social psychologists like
moralistic - perhaps even preachy - tone. As Don Brewer and Stephan suggest important cautions about
Adams used to annoyingly repeat, sorry about that. how we view these effects. They remind us that
Yet, I’m holding my own feet to the fire as much as I ingroup bias and outgroup bias are two separate
am anyone else’s. One of the things I most appreciate phenomena, not mere flip sides of the same coin.
about the pastor of my church is that, whenever he asks While these two processes often operate in tandem,
similar application questions in a sermon, he always they do not always do so: it is possible to identify
ends with, “What about you? What about me?” strongly with a certain group, to draw meaning from
my membership in that group and to see it as a central
1. To what extent would you say that you can enter element of my self-definition, without disparaging

The Social Psychology of the Origins Debate

those in other groups and without believing that all those who feel marginalized by their own group or
others should be “just like me” at the risk of second- who may feel as if they don’t quite fit even within their
class citizenship or dehumanized status. In some cases, own circles. Such people may be most eager to
I can affirm who I am while simultaneously affirming demonstrate to themselves and others that “I really am
the value of those who are unlike me (“everybody’s one of you”. I can’t help wondering, by extension, if
beautiful in their own way”). In their research, they evolutionary creationists (though often seeing
examine the questions, “Under what conditions will themselves as a bridge between the extremists) might
ingroup preference lead to negative attitudes about sometimes fall prey to these tendencies. It can be
those who are different?” wearing to have to try to prove to mainstream
evolutionists our scientific credentials, while also
Polarization Factors defending our theological credentials to our co-
At least three factors may be responsible for the religionists!
tendency to polarize the social world (like me = good,
unlike me = bad) or to view outgroup members Questions for discussion
prejudicially or unfavorably. These factors are 1. What are your existing prejudices with respect to the
described as 1) realistic threat 2) symbolic threat and 3) origins debate? It’s easy to find extreme examples of
ingroup anxiety. Factors two and three seem pertinent prejudicial statements by extremists on both sides of
to the origins debate, while the first is likely less this debate, and to give oneself a clean bill of health on
relevant. Realistic threat describes a social interaction the grounds that “I’m not like that”. But, for most of
where the outgroup is competing with me and my us, prejudice comes in milder forms - so-called
group for scarce resources. While this element may “implicit prejudice” that lurks in the subconscious
underlie many geopolitical conflicts (it is a likely cause mind. It’s hard to ferret these out, of course, yet
of many wars), it seems rather tangential in importance essential to try. Are you holding to your remaining
to the origins debate (unless one views academic prejudices in the same way that an alcoholic justifies
respectability and cultural influence as “scarce his drinking - “I can stop any time I want to”?
resources” of this type).
2. What steps might be helpful to reduce your own
Polarization Factors Relevant to the Origins Debate prejudice quotient? For some, biting your tongue
Both symbolic threat and intergroup anxiety seem before you speak, or gluing your fingers together
pertinent to the origins discussion. First, the outgroup before you email, might be a useful beginning. For
can be a source of symbolic threat in that the very others, meaningful (non-combative) dialogue with
existence of their different ways and ideas challenge someone with whom you disagree might be a good
the validity and legitimacy of my own. One common start. Those of you who disagree violently with me are
response to symbolic threat is an attempt to free to pick me as a dialogue partner. Post away!
delegitimize opposing ideas (through caricature or
thinly veiled sarcasm, for instance) or to drive them
underground in some fashion; this seems to closely VI. Personality Diversity and
describe the actual conduct of the origins debate on
both sides of the divide. Cognitive Modes in the Origins
Debate: Part One
Second, intergroup anxiety stems from the fear that I
will be unable to handle direct contact or interaction
with outgroup members: that I will not be able to “hold The fact that we differ from one another is such an
my own” (intellectually, emotionally, or otherwise), obvious one that it hardly needs to be stated, yet much
that my inadequacies will be publicly revealed, and so of academic psychology until recent decades has
forth. This too seems relevant to the contemporary somewhat ignored that reality. The terms often used in
origins debate, as neither side seems readily willing to scholarly discourse are “nomothetic” versus
acknowledge gaps, flaws, or problems in their ideas. “idiographic” psychology. Nomothetic theorists focus
(Indeed, one wonders how many social conflicts would on the similarities between persons (what we have in
go away if we would all just memorize the phrase, common, what makes us all alike) and, in the extreme,
“There is much I don’t know, and I have a great deal to can mistakenly view human beings as entirely
learn from you”?) equivalent, so that understanding one of us generates a
full understanding of any of us. Idiographic theorists,
Finally, these researchers intriguingly find that ingroup in contrast, focus on the differences between persons
members who are most likely to show these effects are (what differentiates us, what makes us each unique)

The Social Psychology of the Origins Debate

and, in the extreme, can mistakenly view each of us as explored possible connections between this personality
so irreducibly unique as to render any general characteristic and two contrasting forms of religion that
understanding of human psychology impossible. he styled “once-born” versus “twice-born” religious
As in most life situations, the truth likely lies
somewhere in between. However, my personal bias is Models of Personality Diversity: Other Important
in favor of idiographic psychology. My favorite book Additions
on the subject is one whose title says it all (which Possibly influenced (at least indirectly) by James’
conveniently absolves you of the responsibility of work, many subsequent personality theorists have
reading it): I’m Not Crazy, I’m Just Not You. The developed this same theme. The great-grandfather of
failure to identify and work within one’s own personal them all, Carl Jung, developed his famous theory of
uniqueness is, from a counseling standpoint, a major psychological types on the basis of the idea that people
challenge; as Lily Tomlin once self-mockingly put it, differ in three important ways: in their focus on the
“I always wanted to be somebody, but now I see that I outer world of action and interaction versus the inner
should have been more specific.” world of reflection and introspection (extraversion vs.
introversion), in their emphasis on practical concrete
In this article, and one to follow later this week, I will realities or on imaginative abstract possibilities
be examining the role of personality differences, as (sensing vs. intuition), and in their use of either
well as the related issue of diversity in how we think impersonal logic or personal values to make important
and process information (so-called “cognitive modes”), decisions (feeling vs. thinking). (Devotees of the
in influencing how we perceive questions relating to Myers-Briggs Type Indicator will know that later
creation and evolution. I am currently in the early theorists added a fourth dimension to yield the famous
stages of conducting research directly addressing this sixteen psychological type designators.) Heather
question. While the canons of research ethics prohibit Cattell wrote extensively about these same notions
me from directly divulging the results of these early using a different vocabulary and methodology, but also
pilot studies, I will at a few points hide my light under agreed that these fundamental differences largely
a bushel in the hope that astute readers will be able to reflected James’ original notion. Still more recently,
find the bushel and kick it to one side, thus revealing McCrae and Costa developed and promoted their now
the illumination underneath. influential Big Five model of personality diversity,
again signifying that most if not all of these dimensions
Models of Personality Diversity: The Pioneering have at least implicit links to James’ formulation.
Work of William James
About a century ago, the early psychologist William Can Personality Profiles Predict Views on the
James wrote and published his now-classic work The Origins Debate?
Varieties of Religious Experience, still considered My research is focusing in part on the question of
among the “must-read” classic works on that topic. As whether students’ personality profiles can statistically
part of that work, James introduced and elucidated the predict either their existing views on the origins debate
distinction between “tough-minded” and “tender- (dividing students, by means of an original
minded” individuals. The former, as the name implies, questionnaire, into creationist, theistic evolutionist, and
were no-nonsense types with their feet firmly planted secular evolutionist groups) and/or the likelihood that
on the ground, people who were most interested in their views will change as the result of exposure to a
hard-headed practical realities and not given to secular education, either in general or specifically in
introspection, internal analysis, or self-doubt. By terms of course content relating to evolutionary
temperament, they were realists and empiricists who science. My original hypothesis was that secular
believed in the world presented to them through their evolutionists would be more “tough-minded” (prone to
five senses and in the role of impersonal, objective adopt a more reductionistic view of reality, in that only
logic. By contrast, the latter inhabited a world in which what can be scientifically established is real), while
compassion, connection to others (including, perhaps, other groups would be more “tender-minded” (prone to
an unseen and nonhuman world), hidden meanings, view reality in less reductionistic terms that allowed for
transcendent purposes, and the like took center stage. the possibility of nonempirical realities and
These individuals were prone to believe that “the nonscientific ways of knowing). Over time, students
unexamined life is not worth living” but, in their with different personality profiles might tend to
tendency to question themselves and to be harsh self- diverge from one another in predictable ways even if
critics, may have been more prone to self-doubt, guilt, they started their college experience with similar
and personal recriminations. In his book, James attitudes and beliefs about the origins debate.

The Social Psychology of the Origins Debate

world can be divided into left-hemisphere and right-

In the next article, we’ll explore further implications of hemisphere types), some would go further beyond the
these differences with a more detailed emphasis on evidence to speculate about personality and
different modes of thinking. motivational differences between these two types of
individuals. Some authors call them the “safeguarding
Questions for Discussion self” and the “experimenting self”, for instance.
1. In your experience, do you agree with me that
creationists and evolutionists (particularly Different Colored Thinking Hats
reductionistic or secular evolutionists) differ in how Perhaps influenced by these ideas, consulting
they think as much as in what they think? In other psychologist Edward de Bono has postulated six
words, to what extent is the dispute one about different cognitive modes or ways of using one’s mind,
methodology or epistemology (what truth is and how it which he believes are learnable skill sets that can be
might best be determined or evaluated)? enhanced through targeted practice. He uses the
metaphor of putting on different “thinking hats” to
2. If this is true, how might the gap best be bridged? characterize the shift between cognitive modes; thus,
he talks about detailed observation (White Hat),
emotional expression and empathy (Red Hat),
VII. Personality Diversity and creativity and humor (Green Hat), logical critiquing
and troubleshooting (Black Hat), and so forth. Linking
Cognitive Modes in the Origins these ideas to the previous paragraph, it seems likely
Debate: Part Two that left-hemisphere persons specialize more in White
and Black Hat thinking, as opposed to the Green and
Red Hat emphases of the right-hemisphere thinker.
In the previous article, the possibility that the origins
debate stems in part from personality or cognitive Again, my research on student views of the origins
differences was introduced. This article will focus in a debate is beginning to examine the influence of
more technical way on the possible roots of those cognitive mode differences on student views of
differences and their implications. creation and evolution. (Note: Readers of this series
will have the opportunity to examine my research
Cognitive Modes instrument in the concluding article of this series).
The links between personality (who we are and what Somewhat in line with the previous hypothesis, I
motivates us) and cognition (how we think and process expect to find that evolutionists (and particularly
information) are complex and multifaceted. However, secular evolutionists) will show more evidence of
it would be rational to expect a connection between White and Black Hat thinking (“just the facts, ma’am,”
them, since both motivation and cognition are as Jack Webb used to intone each week on Dragnet),
undergirded by one and the same neural apparatus! while creationists and perhaps also theistic
Much theorizing on the phenomenon of hemispheric evolutionists to a lesser extent will show more
lateralization (the fact that our higher brain centers are evidence of Green and Red Hat thinking (“there is
divided into mirror-image opposite halves or more in heaven and earth than is dreamed of in your
hemispheres, which appear to process information in philosophy”).
radically different ways) has led to speculations, some
more scientifically grounded than others, about how Further Implications
the personality-cognition linkage might work in If the intractable divide between creationists and
practice. evolutionists in the wider world is, in fact, driven in
part by fundamentally different ways of thinking and
Most experts, with varying degrees of skepticism about processing information, it is no surprise that opponents
these notions, probably now agree that the left routinely talk past one another and fail to understand
hemisphere processes information in a more linear, the meanings and motivations of each other. (It doesn’t
detail-minded, logic-driven manner (asking narrower take a rocket scientist - which is convenient for me,
or more concrete questions, and being more verbally since I’m not one - to observe, along with Christian
driven), as compared to the more nonlinear, big- psychiatrist Paul Tournier, that most of the origins
picture, intuitive processing of the right hemisphere debate has been yet another example of “dialogues of
(asking broader or more abstract questions, and being the deaf”.)
more visually driven). Since, to a greater or lesser
extent, all of have a more dominant hemisphere (the A good first step in bridging the divide may be an

The Social Psychology of the Origins Debate

explicit recognition of the fact that there are multiple raise a family.
gateways to truth (or at least to the conviction that
something is true), and that many of the classic One notes two things about this story. First, it is
disputes really are, as children of the Vietnam War era theoretically possible that the plan would work.
are still prone to put it, “arguments about the shape of Second, without more specific tactics and a good
the table”. Those who are cognitively prone to restrict awareness of the intervening landscape, the odds of the
themselves to direct empirical evidence often fail to couple actually meeting are astonishingly low.
understand how anyone can doubt evolutionary science
or, more radically, why anyone would need to assert The Historical Relationship Between Science and
any level of kind of explanation other than the Religion
reductionistic and proximal. On the other hand, those In my view, even at its best the historical relationship
whose natural cognitive tendency is to place empirical between science and religion is something like this.
data in a wider context (or, in more extreme cases, to (The parable is based on the short story The Place of
disparage the role of the merely empirical) can’t easily Telling I wrote in 1992). Once upon a time, these two
understand how anyone could be satisfied with an ways of knowing were united (there was a unity of
explanatory framework that failed to ask the wider knowledge), but for complex reasons, the two went
questions of meaning, purpose, and ultimate their separate ways, with unfortunate results. In today’s
metaphysical causality. Colin Chapman’s famous work culture, some people believe that one or the other is
on the six ways of knowing is a good framework for unnecessary or even detrimental. Others attach such
bridging these differences, and I recommend it primacy to their preferred approach that (to continue
(particularly its exposition in Christianity on Trial, a with the analogy) they refuse to leave their state of
work that remains cogent though now rather dated). origin (Florida or Alaska respectively).

Questions for Discussion A Hope for Unity once more

1. What do you think of De Bono’s idea that factual- In contrast, I have the hope – and, indeed, the currently
logical thinkers (White and Black Hat) may differ unsubstantiated faith commitment – that, when all is
dramatically in outlook and motivation from intuitive- said and done and, in the words of W. B. Yeats, “all
subjective thinkers (Green and Red Hat)? Might these that story’s told”, the two can and will meet without
differences, in part, underlie the origins debate? Where contradiction, and the unity of knowledge will again be
on this continuum do you think you fall, and why? restored. As Eliyahu Rips puts it, “I think that finally,
when we understand both well enough, religion and
2. From an evolutionary standpoint, why might both science will come together, and we will at last have a
styles of thinking have persisted throughout human unified field theory.” We’re a long way from that as I
(pre)history? (This is a very speculative question, but I write; the driver of the science vehicle is somewhere in
would be interested in readers’ thoughts about it.) Georgia, and the religious traveler has just crossed into
Presumably both styles are functional and adaptive in Canada.
some fashion. How and why?
As the Amy Grant lyrics my wife and I chose for our
wedding put it, “We’re caught in between the now and
VIII. The Social Psychology of the the not yet.” This creative tension between the way the
world is now and the way the world one day will be is,
Origins Debate: Conclusion I think, an inevitable part of the Christian experience. It
colors everything, including how we think about both
Like any good narrative psychologist, let me close this science and faith. But one day all things will be united
series with a parable, or at least the broad outlines of in Christ. Although in context Paul was talking about a
one. An engaged couple was separated geographically different kind of separation, it is perhaps not an
through no fault of their own; he ended up in Miami, inappropriate application to note that one of Christ’s
while she landed in Anchorage. Undaunted, they made ministries was that of uniting the hopelessly divided:
plans to rectify the problem. They agreed that on a “For he himself is our peace, who has made the two
certain date he would start driving north and west from one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of
Miami (within the limits of geography and available hostility” (Eph. 2:14).
roads) and she would begin driving south and east
from Anchorage. Each would drive the same number While many people do affirm both science and religion
of hours each day, and their plan was to meet in the in principle, the historical relationship between them
middle of the country, get married, buy a house, and has often been rife with conflict. This series has

The Social Psychology of the Origins Debate

attempted to explore some of the psychologically based

reasons for the ongoing conflict: the resistance we all
have to changing our established ways of thinking;
group polarization processes that make it difficult to
regard perspectives of other, “opposing” social groups
fairly; and cognitive style differences that may cause
different persons to process and evaluate the same
information in strikingly incommensurable ways.
While these concepts are not a panacea that will
resolve the cultural disputes once and for all – if I were
able to do that, I would hope for a Nobel Prize or at
least immediate tenure – they do represent a “tool kit”
that may enable us to respond to those with whom we
disagree with a greater degree of understanding,
respect, and dignity. If we can’t always agree about
conclusions, perhaps we can find ways to agree about
process or about motives.

Reinhold Neibuhr once famously said, “Nothing that is

worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore
we must be saved by hope.” My hope is that this series
has been a small contribution towards that end –
looking forward to the day when “we shall know, even
as we are known.”

Thanks again for the privilege of contributing to this


Take the Survey

I invite readers to participate in my online survey on
attitudes about origins. The survey contains 85
questions, 55 having to do with issues related directly
or indirectly to the origins debate, 30 involving normal
personality diversity. I have, of course, some specific
research hypotheses that I would be happy to share,
along with preliminary research results as they emerge,
with those who complete the survey and email me to
inform me that they have done so. The survey is
anonymous (I will not know whose responses are