Can the Tools of Social-Cognitive Psychology Inform Spiritual Formation Practices?

Brittany Tausen and Katherine Douglass
Thursday 21 October 2021
  1. Introduction and Hypothesis
  2. Fields of Study
  3. Discussion
  4. Conclusion

1. Introduction and Hypothesis

Aside from loving God, the hallmark of a Christ-filled life is to love one’s neighbor as oneself (Mark 12:31). Thus, spiritual formation should be evidenced by an increased depth and breadth of our love for others. Indeed, it is said that we will be recognized as Christians by our love for one another (John 13:35), but how do we know if we are truly growing in our love for others? It is one thing to say we love our neighbors, it is another for that truth to infiltrate the way that we think about and treat other people compared to ourselves. While theological perspectives point to certain characteristics or behaviors that might lead us to believe that we are growing in love for others, empirical assessments of growth in the characteristics that denote a Christ-filled life are largely absent. To this end, social psychology has a wealth of systematic approaches for evaluating how we think about ourselves and others, which may be useful to address the disconnect between intention (to grow in love for others) and outcome (whether we actually grow in love for others).

In the city of Seattle, individuals experiencing homelessness are both literally and figuratively our neighbors. On any given night many in Seattle are without permanent housing. In 2019, it was estimated that 11,199 people were experiencing homelessness with 47 percent of that population being unsheltered, living on the street, in parks, tents, vehicles, or other places not meant for human habitation (Applied Survey Research 2019). While most students readily agree that loving their neighbor is a Christian virtue, few include the homeless population in their definition of their “Seattle neighbors” or see individuals experiencing homelessness as equal to themselves (Tausen 2021). Founded on the premise that we cannot fully love our neighbors if we see them as “less than,” theological practices that enhance perceptions of another’s humanity are more likely to lead to the self-sacrificial love of others to which Christians are called.

The current project utilizes social psychological tools to determine the efficacy of a theological practice aimed at helping us love others as we love ourselves. Specifically, we investigated the effects of sharing a meal with one’s unhoused neighbors on perceptions of those experiencing homelessness on two core dimensions of humanness relative to a control condition where the theological practice of breaking bread with one another was not employed. Of course, it is possible that the practice of sharing a meal with individuals experiencing homelessness could do more harm than good whether through accelerating students beyond a state of optimal challenge into crisis or reinforcing negative stereotypes and dehumanizing perceptions of individuals experiencing homelessness. Given the range of possibilities and the potential for harm, it is critical that well-intentioned spiritual practices be empirically evaluated before they are recommended as tools for transformation in churches and classrooms. Grounded in social psychological theory and practical theology frameworks, we hypothesized that asking students to engage in an intergroup contact opportunity where they share a meal with individuals experiencing homelessness would significantly reduce social psychological measures of dehumanization for this highly stigmatized group. In addition to this empirical approach, we collected qualitative data to capture students’ personal reflections of their meal sharing experience.

2. Fields of Study

2.1 A Social Psychological Perspective – Dehumanization and the Contact Hypothesis

Person perception is a subfield of social psychology aimed at understanding how impressions of other people are formed and quantifying the characteristics most commonly associated with different people groups. Decades of social psychological research have identified a number of people groups that are regularly devalued and dehumanized (Epley and Waytz 2010; Fiske 2009; Gray, Gray, and Wegner 2007; Haslam and Loughnan 2014; Waytz, Schroeder, and Epley 2014). Through this psychological lens, one way we can fail to love our neighbor is by perceiving them as less human than we see ourselves. This can manifest in devaluing another person through the overt denial of their humanity (dehumanization by commission) or the more subtle underestimation of another’s mental processes (dehumanization by omission). In 2005, Haslam and colleagues developed a measure to assess the magnitude of dehumanization by omission along two key dimensions: Human Uniqueness and Human Nature. Human Uniqueness encompasses the cognitive abilities that are believed to distinguish humans from non-human animals (e.g., self-control, logic, and intelligence). Human Nature traits encompass the emotional capacities that are believed to distinguish humans from machines (e.g., emotional responsiveness, having depth and warmth). These forms of dehumanization are associated with myriad of consequences including how dehumanized individuals are treated, but also how dehumanized individuals feel and act (Kteily and Bruneau 2017).

One of the most consistent and extreme examples of dehumanization appears in the perception of individuals experiencing homelessness (Fiske 2009). Not only are individuals experiencing homelessness denied human uniqueness and human nature traits (relative to oneself), but these perceptions are predictive of the extent to which students report engaging in behaviors to avoid and a lack of willingness to help unhoused individuals (Tausen et al. in prep). Given the negative consequences, a substantial body of research explores ways to reduce negative outgroup attitudes, including the extent to which individuals experiencing homelessness are dehumanized. Gordon Allport’s Contact Hypothesis (1954) has served as a theoretical framework for much of this research. According to Allport, negative intergroup attitudes can be diminished when meaningful interactions between outgroup members occur. Critically, Allport outlined a number of criteria (e.g., equal status, support of institutions) that are necessary in order for attitude transformation to occur. Meta analyses demonstrate the value of intergroup contact (Lemmer and Wagner 2015), and yet also call for more thorough investigations of intergroup contact that meet Allport’s criteria (Paluck et al. 2019). When it comes to common interactions with unhoused individuals in particular, few meet the criterion of equal status. Rather, many intergroup interactions are characterized by a power differential (i.e., serving food to an individual experiencing homelessness) that attenuates the potential for intergroup contact to improve attitudes. Utilizing a measure of dehumanization by omission that probes the importance of human-like needs, Tausen and colleagues (2021) demonstrated that even inviting unhoused individuals to live on a college campus for a 3-month period proved insufficient to decrease most college students’ dehumanizing perceptions of those who are unhoused. Thus, the current study leveraged an encounter that continues to eliminate the power dynamic and further complies with Allport’s (1954) originally proposed criteria. Critically, this interaction group is compared to a control group in the current study to truly isolate changes in dehumanization that occur as a function of the dinner interaction and to rule out the possibility that impressions of individuals experiencing homelessness trend positively over time or as a result of other forms of course content.

Preliminary results examining perceptions of individuals experiencing homelessness prior to any meal sharing experience corroborate previous work demonstrating a base-line level of dehumanization on both human uniqueness and human nature dimensions. Future data analyses will be conducted to test our primary hypothesis that this unique form of intergroup contact – sharing a meal together – can enhance perceptions of the human uniqueness and human nature traits associated with individuals experiencing homelessness relative to a control (no dinner) group.

2.2 A Practical Theology Perspective – The Disorienting Dilemma of Breaking Bread Together

One of the goals of the Christian education and formation is to become more like Jesus by growing in our love for God and for others. Forming Christian identity begins by becoming aware of one’s own beliefs and assumptions about God, God’s relationship with humanity, and God’s will for human interaction. While some of this learning can (and does) happen through readings, lectures, and discussions, we believe identity is most powerfully shaped when these intellectual learning opportunities are married with embodied encounters that address similar topics that are then reflected upon after the event. Practical theologians refer to this reflection-action-reflection cycle as praxis. One way to intentionally bring about praxis is to embed a thought provoking experience (like a disorienting dilemma) in the curriculum and to make space to process the experience afterward. According to Jack Meizerow, adults learn most powerfully through disorienting dilemmas where their perceptions and assumptions are disrupted (Meizerow 1991). Once disrupted these perceptions and assumptions are brought to a conscious level to be reexamined for critical self-reflection leading to personal transformation.[1]

The hope in this study is that students might be pushed into what L.S. Vygotsky calls the Zone of Proximal Development (1978). The most powerful learning happens when students do not remain complacent in comfort or shut down due to a feeling of crisis, but instead are challenged.  To provide insight into the student learning experience beyond what could be captured in the quantitative data, those who attended the dinner wrote a short 500-word reflection where they told the story of a person that they met at the dinner. These qualitative findings suggest that the majority of students did experience transformation in their perceptions of their unhoused neighbors.[2] Many came to insights similar to the following student. These insights include a more complicated understanding of people who experience homelessness, an awareness of the stereotypes those experiencing homelessness must constantly live with, and the humanizing insight that “homeless people are just that, they’re people.”

I think growing up half-white and half-Hispanic, but looking stereotypically white and fitting in with the majority, I have never really had to think about being the minority in a group in public and I have never really thought about this until now, but perhaps this is how homeless people feel out in the world in general. If you were to ask me about this before this assignment, I probably would have said this is probably how a Person of Color feels surrounded by the majority. However, when it comes to homeless people, they are almost always forgotten and unwanted. Stereotypically, the homeless are seen as dangerous, drug addicts, and mentally ill and perhaps some of this is true, however, how are these people supposed to get help and perhaps even end their cycle of homelessness when this negative stigma is put against them. I realize now what the purpose of this assignment was; to not only meet new people and broaden our horizons but also to see homeless people as just that, they’re people.” (2018F 27)

Karl Barth’s theological anthropology defined humanity as having relationships of mutuality; specifically mutual seeing, mutual hearing, mutual serving, and mutual delighting (1960). His emphasis on mutuality is especially poignant given the fact that he was writing in the context of the Holocaust, where Jews, people with disabilities, and others who did not conform to the Nazi ideal for being a human were being systematically labeled, silenced, and eliminated. While this project did not ask those experiencing homelessness to serve our college students, we did ask them to see and hear one another, and possibly even delight in the presence of each other. Students were challenged by the experience of lining up outside the church building for dinner where no one could tell if they were homeless or not. They were challenged by finding someone to sit with and, for this digital native generation, they were also challenged by starting a conversation with a stranger.  After this encounter, many came to the insight that those experiencing homelessness are “human just like me,” and some even found themselves laughing together experiencing mutual delight (Barth 1960, 250-265).

Notably, there was a small group of students that were challenged to the point of crisis by this experience. While the overall aim of this assignment was to disrupt stereotypes and humanize the homeless population, for those in crisis, problematic stereotypes were reinforced and students who left the dinner early, or could not bring themselves to even show up for the dinner, wrote that they felt shame or embarrassment. Mezirow reflects on the issue of reinforcing negative stereotypes, writing that sometimes a “commitment to reflective action logically should follow insight” but situations can become so stressful “threatening or demanding that the learner is immobilized” (1991). It can be claimed that the feeling of shame or embarrassment was a starting place, for some, for insight or reflection, however, for others in this “crisis” group, the experience simply proved to them that those experiencing homelessness acted exactly as they had expected. For a few other students, who had already worked in significant ways with those experiencing homelessness, there was also little transformation as students were already deeply compassionate and loving toward their unhoused neighbors. For them, this experience did not move them out of their comfort zone. On the whole, however, these reflections provide initial evidence to suggest that students perceive sharing a meal with individuals experiencing homelessness to be a positive and transformative experience.

3. Discussion

The current study employed social cognitive measurements to assess whether sharing a meal and fellowshipping with a member of a marginalized group (a theological practice) could improve perceptions of the group as a whole. Specifically, students in the experimental condition were required to take part in a free community dinner at a local church alongside individuals currently experiencing food and housing insecurity. Perceptions of individuals experiencing homelessness and the self on human uniqueness and human nature dimensions were measured at the beginning and end of the course to capture possible change in dehumanization as a function of the community dinner assignment compared to a control (no dinner assignment) condition. We also collected students’ qualitative reflections on their meal-sharing experience. In these reflections, many students cited a recognition of their shared humanity with the unhoused individual with whom they shared a meal. It remains to be seen if our quantitative data corroborate these reflections, but preliminary results demonstrated that our participants do dehumanize individuals experiencing homelessness prior to the dinner opportunity, providing evidence that there is room for growth in our student population when it comes to their perceptions of individuals experiencing homelessness and the ways in which they fail to love and see their neighbors as themselves.

While the focus of the current study was to assess changes in dehumanization as a function of the community dinner assignment, we also included exploratory measures probing treatment of individuals experiencing homelessness as well as questions that assessed individual faith differences. Specifically, we collected information about worship attendance, the importance of religious beliefs, frequency of prayer, and the importance of being connected to a religious community. Together, these quantitative tools afford the opportunity to determine whether sharing a meal and fellowshipping through a class assignment is an effective way to shape the way that students think about the humanity of their homeless neighbors relative to their own humanity and whether these effects are moderated by individual faith differences. These exploratory analyses will help us to contextualize our findings within the larger belief systems to which one adheres.

Delores Williams coined the term invizibiliation to name the sinful way American society diminishes and dehumanizes black women, and her insights can inform the way we think about the sinful dimensions of dehumanization that occur between our housed students as they eat with their unhoused neighbors (Williams 2015). She connects the experience of individuals with larger systemic problems by claiming that,

Individual sin has to do with participating in society’s systems that devalue Black women’s womanhood (humanity) through a process of invisibilization — that is invisibilizing the womanist character of Black women’s experience and emphasizing the stereotypical images of Black women that prevail and are perpetuated in larger society. (Williams 2015, 135)

The significance of this definition is that it names the failure of mutual seeing (and hearing, serving, and delighting) as sinful. She develops this to name the harm done, not only to Black women as they internalize oppression, but to the entire society, when one specific group is not invited to be their full self. This is not a flimsy two-dimensional definition of sinfulness between one individual and another person, or between an individual and God which could be easily remedied by an apology and contrite confession prayed with an earnest heart. According to Williams, the sin of invisibilization is connected with larger cultural forces that have manifested and festered over generations to take the form of oppression. Reconciliation with and for those long dehumanized demands both interpersonal and larger cultural and societal changes. The same dehumanizing, invisiblizing dynamics are at work between those in housing and those who are unhoused and are evidenced in the ways that individuals experiencing homelessness are thought to possess fewer uniquely human traits and abilities (Fiske 2009) as well as the behavioral consequences of these dehumanizing beliefs.

One of the major themes of our student reflection papers was that this experience brought them close enough to those experiencing homelessness that they could actually “see” them, rather than ignore them. These observations are in line with the goals of Contact Hypothesis (Allport 1954), championing meaningful intergroup interactions characterized by equal status to improve positive perceptions of those who are seen as ‘others’, in part,  due to a lack of individuating knowledge. According to Williams, the opposite of invisibilization is somebodiness, a definition built from the liberation theology of James Cone, (a Barthian theologian) (Williams 2015, 140). This definition echoes the truths proclaimed by Barth, but contextualizes them for the present moment. To see someone and be seen by them is to affirm, “You are somebody.” We believe this mutual seeing is one step toward loving our neighbor as ourselves by perceiving them to be just as human as we see ourselves. This rich set of qualitative and quantitative data collected in the current study will allow us to systematically investigate the validity of these claims and to test the efficacy of sharing a meal together as a mechanism by which another’s humanity can be more clearly seen.

4. Conclusion

The tools of social psychology provide the unique opportunity to assess when and for whom theological practices manifest in the greatest spiritual formation. From a qualitative perspective, it seems that sharing a meal with others, especially those who are perceived to be different or less than ourselves, has potential for meaningful transformation. Not only is communing together a discipline that Jesus modeled and discussed (Luke 14:7-21), but it critically disrupts the power dynamic that many college students are accustomed to when engaging with individuals of a lower socio-economic status. Building on this theological framework and our initial qualitative findings, we will continue to investigate the value of this unique form of intergroup contact from a quantitative perspective. Combined, these insights will inform the way learning experiences can be scaffolded to disrupt problematic perceptions of our unhoused neighbors, so that individuals can fully embrace those who are homeless as people to be loved rather than problems to be solved. This empirical approach will also inform the field of practical theology by providing a critical commentary on ministries that reinforce) dehumanizing perceptions of the homeless population (or merely maintain the status quo) rather than disrupt patterns of dehumanization along with suggestions for more faithful Christian identity formation.


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[1] Paolo Friere advocated for contientization, or consciousness raising, in order for broader, societal transformation (Freire 1970). More recently, Robin D’Angelo, has written about how spending time with disruptive experiences and becoming aware of our own biases we can begin to change our prejudices, discriminatory action, and disrupt long histories of systemic oppression (D’Angelo 2016). We hope to explore these themes of societal change that addresses systemic oppression in our analysis of this data.

[2] These findings are currently under review for the  Journal of Theology and Psychology  in an article titled “Human Just Like Me: Disrupting Dehumanization through Disorienting Dilemmas” by Katherine M. Douglass and Lucy Israel.

Cite this article

Tausen, Brittany, and Katherine Douglass. 2021. “Can the Tools of Social-Cognitive Psychology Inform Spiritual Formation Practices?” Theological Puzzles (Issue 4).

Contact the author

Brittany Tausen
[email protected]

Katherine Douglass
[email protected]

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