The Lure of Homogeneity (Or, why we like going to church with people who are just like us)

Similarity of attitudes and experiences is one of the most important predictors of liking; we like people who share our attitudes, values and preferences. We have both experiential/emotional and cognitive reasons for liking people who are just like us. From an experiential point of view, research shows that “I-sharing” – sharing a subjective experience with another person – causes people to feel a profound sense of connection with others, even others who are otherwise dissimilar . For example, imagine you hear a stranger ahead of you in the grocery checkout line say something that strikes you as funny. You glance at the person in line behind you, who glances back, and the two of you burst out laughing, as if you share a private joke. This shared experience increases your liking for this stranger, even if this stranger is demographically and attitudinally dissimilar. As I-sharing researcher Elizabeth Pinel and her colleagues explain it, “A fundamentalist Christian and an atheist can find themselves enjoying the same sunset; a staunch Republican and an equally staunch Democrat can share a laugh. When two objectively different people I-share in these and other ways, their disliking for one another might lessen, if only for a moment” (p. 245). In this way, shared spiritual experience could be a powerful force for unity in the Church. However, due to the fact that we mostly worship with people who are demographically and attitudinally similar to us, our most common I-shares are with people who are look, think, act and experience the world like us. For this reason, powerful shared spiritual experiences serve to further solidify our bonds with and increase our liking for similar others with our homogenous church groups.

From a cognitive point of view, it makes sense that we prefer to spend time with and worship with people who are familiar and similar, and avoid those who are unfamiliar and dissimilar. Social cognitive scientists, Shelley Taylor and Susan Fiske coined the term cognitive miser to describe our natural tendency to conserve cognitive resources. The human brain is limited in its ability to pay attention to and process information; the volume of information to which we are exposed on a daily basis far exceeds the brains ability to process it. In order to accommodate this imbalance, we become cognitive misers, conserving our mental energy by selectively choosing what we’ll pay attention to, using mental shortcuts, and avoiding situations that demand a lot of cognitive resources. To this end, we prefer to spend time with people who are like us because they are familiar, we know what to expect from them and we can easily predict their behavior. Conversely, our interactions with people who are different than us or who violate our expectations are uncertainty-laden and cognitively taxing. By choosing to interact with similar others, we can conserve our valuable and limited cognitive energy.

In order to illustrate this idea, social psychologist Jim Blascovich and colleagues conducted a study in which participants were asked to interact with individuals who either violated or confirmed their expectations. Specifically, the individual who confirmed their expectations was a white person with a strong Southern accent whereas the individual who violated their expectations was an Asian person with a strong Southern accent. The idea is that the average American is unlikely to expect an Asian person to speak with a Southern accent. After interacting with one of the individuals, participants were asked to complete a cognitive task. As predicted, the participants who interacted with the person who violated their expectations performed more poorly on the cognitive task. The researchers concluded that the participants who were required to interact with an individual who violated their expectations used a significant amount of their cognitive energy in order to navigate the uncertain social situation. Since their cognitive resources were depleted, they were unable to use them on the following cognitive task.

Research on similarity and conserving cognitive resources helps us understand why American Christians are gravitating toward churches that are filled with people who look like them, talk like them, worship like them and think like them. We might genuinely believe that we would like culturally-different Christians if we got to know them but the mere difference between us and them is an impediment. They speak a different language or eat different food or worship in a different style or look different. It’s simply easier to live our lives without them because to cross paths in a meaningful way would require a whole lot of work and effort and quite frankly, we’re busy. So we retreat to our homogenous church with its comfortable rituals and familiar worship styles and easy communication and we sigh with relief.