Expectations and Maze Dull Rats
Robert Rosenthal was a psychologist who is famous for his experiment with rats in a maze. The experiment looked at “expectancy effects” and how our expectations have a direct effect on the outcome of what we are doing (link).
In 1963, Rosenthal took two groups of students to test how well they could get their rats through a maze. The students were to help guide their rats through the maze as fast as they could.
To one set of students he gave them, what he called, “Maze Dull” rats and to the other group he bestowed to wonderful “Maze Bright” rats.
Of course, in reality there were not differences at all between the rats, but the students didn’t know this.
Can you guess what happened?
Those students with the “maze bright” rats performed almost 50% better than the ones with the “maze dull” ones. But there was no difference between the rats.
So what made the difference? It was determined that all the difference lie with the expectations of each group of students.
The researchers learned that the students with the maze bright rats said different words to their rats, used different, friendlier tones when talking to them, they handled them more gently, they expected their rats to do better and so they treated them as such.
Sadly,the opposite was true with the “maze dull” ones. They were handled more harshly. They spoken to more aggressively, so though they were dumb and couldn’t really understand anything.
This research has gone on to be used in classrooms and parenting. How we interact with our students, children, friends, spouses is all shaped by our expectations of that other person.
Another way to talk about this is called “confirmation bias.” Where we look for, “interpret and recall information in ways that confirm our own beliefs and hypotheses.”
Our expectations and confirmation biases create an inner-wall that keeps transformation at a distance. Our expectations become so insular that I don’t think we are typically aware of how they effect our experience of the world.
This confrontation with expectations and challenge to confirmation biases is exactly what is going on in Mark 1:21–28.
There we see Jesus in his very first public act in the Gospel and it begins with a confrontation.
Just previously, also in Mark 1, we learned about Jesus being baptized by John and God speaking out of the silence, “You are my Son, the beloved, with you I am well pleased.” And then he’s tempted and then…confrontation.
It’s all well and good when we’re still just talking about talking about Jesus having a ministry. It’s quite another when he actually shows up and starts to do it.
So what is the confrontation in Mark 1 about? I think there are a number of things going on but the one I want to focus on today is about the question of truth and who are the appropriate vessels to share truth?
Mark says that Jesus taught all day long and the people are “astounded” or “overwhelmed” with how he taught with authority.
- Why are they so surprised (1:22, 27)?
I think it is because of their expectations. They are looking for information that confirms what they already know and Jesus isn’t fitting into their picture easily.
I think they are surprised because of who Jesus was, where he was from, and what it was he was teaching. But we need the rest of the Gospel to get to all of that.
Perhaps there is something about the “medium” that makes Jesus a troubling conduit for his hearers?
It’s as though the crowd is saying:
“We don’t like the conduit that God is using here to speak to us.”
May we don’t like how he’s dressed. Or we don’t like his accent. Or his smell. Or where he lives. Or the school he went to. Or who he lives with. Or or or…
So the saying goes that the medium is the message.
Well that may very well be the case, but in Jesus we first have to realize that my expectations around the medium and the message insulate me from being able to receive the truth that is potentially hard for me to swallow.
And what I perceive as heretical, or untrue, may very well be the truth God is inviting me to receive.
If you’ll notice in the text, it’s the unclean spirit speaking through its own human vessel that says scornfully:
What have you to do with us here, Jesus of Nazareth.
Which reminds us of another rebuke like this in John 1:
Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (Jn. 1:46)
Whatever it is, we get a glimpse into how humanity responds to and resists hearing truth when it first comes.
We like our truth well-packaged. We like it comforting. We like our truth to tell us what we already know and to not raise any doubts or challenge any of our perspectives.
We would really prefer that our truth out of the mouth of someone from Nazareth.
So let me cut to the chase. Who is our Nazarene this morning?
Who is the one who bears truth in our lives, but whom we’d prefer to quickly dismiss?
Or maybe you’re more like the person with an unclean spirit. There is truth in there, but no one wants to hear it or receive it from you.
If we want to be open to God speaking and moving in our lives we need our expectations to shift.
We don’t get to chose our prophets.
And we don’t get to ask them to temper their words or edit their stories for our comfort. They don’t have to clean themselves up, and they should have to be from the right places for us to hear what God is bringing through them.
Here’s my concern:
If we don’t do this, if we don’t learn how to be more spacious internally so that we can receive communion with God from whomever it comes I think we’ll miss transformation.
We’ll miss out on the deliverance the person with the unclean spirit received.
We’ll miss what God is doing right in front of us.
We’ll miss out on the liberation that is possible for all humankind.
We’ll be like the person running to catch the bus but who never really catches it. We don’t always have to be two-steps behind. We don’t always have to feel like we’re stuck or limited in what God can do with us.
Truth Often First Arrives as Untruth
Because here’s the thing: Jesus is showing us that all truth, if it’s really that transformative, boundary pushing, disruptive, holy rolling kind of truth, first comes to us as untruth.
It first appears to us as untruth because it pushes our edges, it challenges our assumptions and it forces us to reexamine our expectations.
- This is the story of Amos an old prophet who was easy to dismiss and who told them people things they didn’t want to hear.
- This is the story of Galileo who challenged the arrogance of the scientific community.
- It’s the story of George Fox and Early Quakers who challenged a rigid religious institution that has lost its way.
- It’s the story of John Woolman whose very life challenged generations of exploitation and wealth based on racism.
- It’s the story of Gandhi, King, Jr., Chavez, and many today who continue to raise challenges and questions the expectations, the status quo of our society.
- And it’s certainly the story of Jesus. The pill isn’t always going to be sugar coated. Are we willing and able to take it anyway?
We must learn to accept that what first may appear to us to be untruth can in fact turn out to be exactly what God is up to.
And so my hope for us is that we’re taking inventory on how we’re doing with receiving this kind of shocking and stirring truth. So that we are learning to live into a bigger and more full picture of God’s work in the world and our participation in it.
Insulated by Oven Mitts
In his book, Love Wins, Rob Bell uses the image of a person playing piano with oven mitts as a metaphor to describe how we become content with something less than reality.
How we get so mired in our way of thinking and living and seeing that we don’t realize that way is actually not the fullest life we could be sharing in.
We are happy to live lives like the person playing piano with oven mitts because we don’t know and we don’t expect anything better.
Our idea of God, Love, Faith, Friendship, Grace and Community and Truth are all bound up in our expectations of those things.
And all of these things can be insulated with the oven mitts of expectations.
So what are your expectations, what are your oven mitts that keep you from truly living, hearing and receiving truth when it comes to you?
What have you labelled as “untruth” that is actually truth you’re avoiding?
Can you name the conduits through which you prefer to hear truth and the ones that you resist? And how might you begin to make that list of those you resist shorter?
May we invite God to shed light and grace into our lives where we, like the crowd, become resistant to how we hear and respond to Jesus.
May we welcome the grace of truth into our lives no matter how jarring it is.