What does self-esteem have to do with reconciliation?

Back in 1951, Dartmouth and Princeton played an important - and unbelievably rough - football game.  By the end of the third quarter, a Princeton player’s nose had been broken and a Dartmouth player’s leg had been broken, and both teams had received multiple penalties for foul play.

Researchers at Dartmouth and Princeton took advantage of this opportunity to measure Dartmouth and Princeton fans’ perceptions of the game. They discovered that both groups believed that their respective team was less responsible for the foul play than the rival team. “They’re the problem! They’re playing like thugs. We’re just the victims!” each group proclaimed. Even though both teams had received numerous penalties for foul play, neither group of fans was willing to admit that their team had contributed to the problem. Even the schools’ newspapers were biased in their reports!

Humans build up self-esteem by perceiving situations in biased ways. We want to believe our group is good and valuable, so we go to great and even irrational lengths to maintain a positive perception of our group. And we often do this without being aware that we are doing it because our minds have built-in group-serving biases that lead us to interpret the world in ways that make our group look good.

We tend to participate in activities that will enhance our group’s image, overestimate our group’s contribution to successful efforts and compare ourselves to lower status groups. We will even go to great lengths to interpret ambiguous situations in ways that make us look good and make the other group look awful.

Many local communities have an annual interchurch worship service or prayer meeting, typically around the National Day of Prayer. If these events are somewhat successful, group-serving biases are likely to lead us to believe that our church was critical to the success. “Yeah, the speaker from the Latino church was pretty good, but it was really our church's worship band that got the night going,” we mumble to ourselves. However, if the event goes poorly, we blame everyone else, even God. The only thing we know for sure is that it’s not our fault. In the end, we concede that unity just isn’t meant to be, and we retreat back to our separate groups, divisions and positive group identity still intact.

The problem is that when we rely on group-serving biases to maintain our positive group identity, we tend to adopt a defensive and un-reconciliatory stance. Regardless of the situation, in our eyes, our cultural group is superior. By thinking highly of ourselves, we naturally think less of others. There might be social problems in the world, but our group is not responsible for them. That other group is the cause of all of the ills. There might be friction within our local community of Christians, but we’re innocent. The problem would be solved if the other church would vote differently, or get serious about living the Christian life, or get their theology straight.

These biases can prevent us from receiving useful insight from those outside our group. If someone critiques our group’s theology or lifestyle or political ideology, we are unable to receive it because we’re too busy protecting our positive group identity. Essentially, our defensiveness disables our ability to humbly receive correction and engage in interdependent cross-cultural relationships – two attitudes that are necessary for true reconciliation.