How to See Again for the First Time: Vicarious construal effect and the journey of Lent

When Professor Clayton Critcher moved to teach at a college in the San Francisco area he figured the up-side of his long, daily commute would be driving across the Bay Bridge every morning and enjoying the scenery. “Unfortunately,” he said later, “I appreciated what I saw for about three days and then started growing blind to it.”

This happens to all of us. What at first seems shocking, exciting, or beautiful over time becomes familiar and uninteresting. The first time we saw the sunrise it was great, but then we stopped looking. The first time we heard the music it stopped us in our tracks, but after awhile we stop listening. The beauty of the world and certain people arrest our attention at first, but eventually we stop seeing it. Psychologists call this habituation.  As he experienced this himself, Critcher wondered if there was a way to slow this down or reverse it altogether. With two other researchers, found a relatively small way to spark our wonder again. 

Calling it “vicarious construal effect,” the researchers discovered that by imagining an experience through somebody else’s eyes, people are themselves able to capture an appreciation that they had either lost or never possessed in the first place.

Asking participant to watch the same video clip three times in a row, researchers measured their responses to how funny, sad, or exciting the video clip was. Predictably, the interest level waned over the three viewings. But when one participant group was asked to consider what someone seeing the clip for the first time might see—by pushing people to step outside of their own experience—researchers were able to significantly reduce the experience of habituation. There was a freshness to the experience of viewing. Wonder began to return.[1]

Tracing Jesus’ journey into Jerusalem can be like that too. When we read it, watch it, see it again and again, our experience of wonder can begin to wane. Let me suggest two ways we can apply Critcher and company’s vicarious construal effect to our experience of Lent in order to regain the shock of our scandalous Jesus.

First, as we read the biblical story, we can use our imagination to consider what someone viewing this for the first time might have seen. We can do that by imagining ourselves within the gospel story, perhaps as a disciple or pilgrim who joined the journey with Jesus or a long-time Jerusalem resident. What would you see, hear, or experience? We can also that by imagining ourselves reading the story again for the very first time. What would stand out to us as interesting, exciting, or strange in Jesus’ story?

Second, as we journey together as a church, we can help regain wonder and stave off habituation of the Gospel by seeing through one another’s eyes. A couple easy ways to do this is by participating in a small group or Sunday class with others or by reading a Lenten devotional to learn from how others see and encounter Jesus. 

May we ask God this Lent to give us eyes and ears to once again see and hear the scandal of Jesus our Messiah. May we ask God this Lent to open our minds with wonder and our hearts with shock to the revelation of the very being of God we encounter in Jesus the eternal Son of God who is also the incarnate one turning Jerusalem upside down. 


[1] Dylan Walsh, “A simple trick for seeing the world through fresh eyes,” Newsroom of Berkeley Haas, May 3, 2020; https://newsroom.haas.berkeley.edu/research/a-simple-trick-for-seeing-the-world-through-fresh-eyes/.

One thought on “How to See Again for the First Time: Vicarious construal effect and the journey of Lent

  1. The discussion of habituation is really interesting as well as the works around for weakening it’s impact. Perfect application for reading as you’ve suggested.

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