During graduate school, my research mentors hated Martin Fishbein because they could not supplant his research with voodoo statistics and esoteric articles that challenged his propositions. Fishbein masterfully combined communications theory with sociology to make a simple, eloquent and yet powerful communications model.

Fishbein (and his co-researcher Icek Ajzen) developed the Theory of Planned Behavior, which stated that if people hold beliefs that a certain behavior would lead to a desired outcome, then they would act on those beliefs through intentional behavior. To make this easy, if someone believes they will make a pile of money on the stock market, then we can predict they will make an investment.

But Fishbein noted that beliefs are not binary – believe or not believe. They are scaled, ranging from weak beliefs to strong beliefs. In the model above and in our resource materials I scaled Fishbein’s model from +1 to +8 (weak to strong). But Fishbein also noted that people make belief choices “in a context” with their “reference group,” indicating that people with emerging beliefs need to have a corresponding group of friends/family/etc. who supports their beliefs.

Again to keep this simple, a person normally will not choose to become a Christian without also thinking about their reference group – buddies, family members, co-workers, neighbors etc. Unlike beliefs that are only positively scaled, reference groups can be positively and/or negatively scaled. In other words, they are for or against the emerging belief and are ranged from weak to strong. They can either help emerging beliefs by being supportive, or hinder emerging beliefs by being resistant.

If a person has a strong belief and has weak reference group support, Fishbein would predict that the person would act on her/his own belief. Conversely, if a person holds a weak belief but has a strong reference group preference (either negative or positive), then Fishbein would predict that the person would act on the desires of the reference group. But if a person has a strong belief, yet experiences strong opposition by the reference group, then the person will experience cognitive dissonance potentially leading to a “cognitive break” with one’s reference group. Some would call this radical conversion if they leave their family and friends to follow their new Christian belief system.

But here is where Fishbein was brilliant. He also observed that people have a wide range of people they would consider “reference groups;” some pro and some con. So generally, what a person does is that he/she will only tell “pro” reference group members of the emerging belief and keep the negative ones in the dark.

Why is this important? In our previous posts on the Three little Ws, the last W is related to message context. If we shift from messages that are traditionally individually oriented and thus incongruent with natural reference group processes to messages that include “pro” groups members, then we cause the person to grow more confident in belief and at the same time pull in “pro” reference group friends. If we do this “tweak,” then we can then have a greater chance of encouraging belief development and identifying people who will believe with our seeker friend. In other words, we share our message with a “group,” not an individual. The person then becomes a believer in a positive group context, even though the greater population is hostile. Actually the more hostile environment, the better the results may be. I know it sounds counter intuitive, but the theory holds true, which is why my research mentors hated Fishbein. But this is why in my ole buddy Rob was successful. His secret sauce was that he focused on the group that led them to “believe together.”

I have written an article to explain how this works in a ministry context. Look it up and read it. And post your comments – let’s get a lively discussion going on this.

This article is part of a series, check out the other articles here.