Does your brain care about other people? It depends

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Does your brain care about other people? It depends Empty Does your brain care about other people? It depends

Post by Thorin on Sat Nov 09, 2019 7:54 pm

People are hardwired to dehumanise others but we can overcome this, say David Eagleman and Don Vaughn

In the 1760s a young British nobleman, Lord George Gordon, entered the Royal Navy as a junior officer. Though born into privilege, he found himself caring deeply about the welfare of the sailors. He campaigned to improve their conditions—generating scorn and mistrust from his fellow officers. And his empathy extended beyond the decks: upon sailing to Jamaica, he was disgusted by the slavery there and berated the British governor. Everywhere he went, he sought to improve the wellbeing of those less fortunate.

Why did Gordon care so much for others? And why do any of us help strangers? After all, the driving force of evolution is survival of the fittest, not the friendliest.

Fortunately, there is another force at work. Our brains are constantly in the business of simulating the experiences of other people and under the right circumstances this leads to empathy: the experiencing of another’s emotions. Empathy counterbalances our appetite for power, tribalism and violence. Empathy is the glue that binds society together. Our species’ dominance is due in part to our empathy, which helps us to cooperate flexibly in large groups.


If the story ended there, our planet would operate like a single, cooperative ant colony. But reality is more complex. Lord Gordon stood for sailors and slaves, but he held nothing but hatred for Catholics. In 1779 Gordon formed and led an anti-Catholic alliance called the Protestant Association, which worked to repeal the civil rights afforded to Roman Catholics in Britain. In June 1780 Gordon marched a riotous crowd of 50,000 to the Houses of Parliament. For a full week the mob destroyed Roman Catholic churches and pillaged Catholic homes in what came to be known as the Gordon Riots, the most destructive domestic upheaval in the history of London. Hundreds of people were killed or wounded before order was restored.

Why did Lord Gordon, a person so capable of empathy, harbour such antipathy for his Catholic neighbors? The answer unmasks a fundamental fact of human nature: our tendency to form ingroups and outgroups—that is, groups that we feel attached to and those that we don’t. Our empathy is selective: we care most about those with whom we share a connection, such as a hometown, a school or a religion.

After the second world war, psychologists wondered how the psychological division into ingroups and outgroups could lead so easily to violence. Fresh on people’s minds were American wartime propaganda that portrayed the Japanese as subhuman, and Japanese propaganda that depicted Americans as deformed monsters, to say nothing of Nazi Germany’s vaunting of a master race and its dehumanisation of Jewish people.


To explore this, in 1954 a team of psychologists brought together a group of pre-teen boys at a summer camp at Robbers Cave State Park in Oklahoma. They randomly divided the boys into two arbitrary groups called the Rattlers and the Eagles. As the researchers watched, a prejudice formed between the groups, initially manifesting itself as light taunting and name-calling. But the partisanship quickly grew more serious. The Eagles torched the Rattlers’ flag, and the next day, the Rattlers plundered the Eagles’ cabin, flipped over beds and stole clothing. Soon, the groups became so hostile that the researchers had to physically separate them. When asked to describe the attributes of the groups, the boys offered flattering terms for their own group and insults for the other. The conclusion: antagonism can emerge from arbitrary divisions.

In recent decades, neuroscientists have begun to study the brain circuits that underlie the feeling of empathy. In 2010 scientists at the University of Zurich recruited sports fans for a brain imaging study. The fans met each other and competed in trivia. They then underwent a brain scan, during which they watched the other fans receive strong electric shocks to their hands. Viewing the pain of others activated brain regions involved in feeling pain oneself. In other words, the viewers weren’t the ones getting shocked, but they simulated the other’s pain. This is the neural basis of empathy.

A deeper dive into the data, however, revealed that the participants displayed more brain activity while watching the pain of fans who liked the same team they did. They showed less brain activity when watching fans of a rival team. Their brains simply responded more to their ingroup.

The sports fans were allowed to meet one another—but more often than not, our policies, charities and wars involve people we’ve never even met. Are we empathically biased when it comes to total strangers, simply based on our labels for them?

To answer this, we designed a study to investigate the minimum amount of information required to trigger an ingroup bias. Participants lay in an MRI scanner and looked at six hands on a video screen. The computer selected one hand at random, and then a hypodermic needle entered the picture and stabbed into the flesh of that hand. In a control condition, a long cotton swab touched the person’s hand—visually similar to the needle, but this time with no pain. By contrasting the brain’s reaction to the needle and the cotton swab, we could measure the brain networks that became active when witnessing another’s pain.

Then each hand became marked with a simple label: Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Scientologist or atheist. Would a participant’s empathic brain activity be affected by a one-word label? If you’re Christian, would you have a larger empathic response when watching the needle stab the Christian hand than, say, the Muslim hand?

Indeed, that is what we found. Watching an ingroup hand get stabbed evoked more empathic brain activity; an outgroup hand triggered less. Although many participants reported that they cared for all people equally, brain imaging revealed a different story: people care about some more than others, and their subconscious selectivity was based on nothing more than a one-word label.

In fact, the difference was strong enough that we were able to use a participant’s brain activity alone to blindly predict their ingroup with 72% accuracy. Strikingly, atheists showed the same ingroup bias as religious participants, suggesting the bias is not so much about religion as it is about the degree of affiliation to a group. Labels alone can spur bias.

Of course, not everyone’s brain was the same. Some people actually did care for everyone approximately equally, while others were highly influenced by the labels. One factor that influenced the bias was a person’s self-assessed empathy. But not in the way you might expect: the more empathic a participant claimed to be, the more she was biased in favor of her ingroup.

Why? Take a moment to think about your own level of empathy toward others. Imagine that you see a 60-year-old man twist his ankle and fall to the ground. Do you feel an empathic sting? Now imagine he’s at a rally for a politician that you loathe. Is your empathy any different? And if so, does that challenge your view of yourself as an empathic person? If you had unequal responses in the two situations, you’re not alone: people generally assess their own empathy by thinking about those in their ingroup.

But if group loyalty is so embedded, why are allegiances flexible? Take for example the relationship between the Russians and Americans. In 1918, an American Expeditionary Force of 5,000 men landed in northeastern Russia and battled the Red Army. During the second world war, however, they fought as allies against a common enemy, shared cigarettes and slapped each other on the back. Soon afterward, cold winds blew and enmity returned.

To understand the flexibility of allegiances, we had our participants read a sentence about a fictional war, in which three of the religions were fighting the other three. The narrative about allegiances was enough to modify the brain’s empathic response: allies became more like ingroup members.

Of course, the roots of religion run deep, so the experiment raised a question for us: how rapidly can the brain build a brand new ingroup? We asked a new group of participants to flip a coin: heads assigned them to the Augustinian team, tails to the Justinian team. We gave each participant a wristband with the name of his team and displayed a sentence in the brain scanner: “The Augustinians and Justinians are two warring tribes.”

We then showed participants the same hand-stabbing videos, but this time, the hands were labeled as Augustinian or Justinian. Remarkably, even though participants knew they had been randomly assigned, their brains showed the same patterns of ingroup allegiance and outgroup disregard. “Us” versus “them” does not need to be predicated on deep meaning: even arbitrary labels rapidly create bias.

The tribal tendencies of humans can incite murder and torture, from the Spanish Inquisition to the Rwandan genocide. They can buoy the appeal of nationalist visions, from Hitler’s Final Solution to Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Given how deeply our biases are ingrained, are we doomed to repeat these atrocities forever?

Perhaps not. We suggest five strategies to narrow the empathic divide.

First, understand our own biases. We can increase our awareness of our internal thought patterns to recognise our prejudices as we experience them. For example, in our social echo-chambers, we tend to accept the logic of our ingroup and reject the logic of the outgroup. We are also predisposed to help those in our ingroups, rather than those a little further away who might need the help more. Understanding the biases behind these actions can lead to more altruistic behaviour.

Second, build a better model of others. This is often done through art and literature, which has long waged a behind-the-scenes battle against dehumanisation. Theatre and books let people to step into the shoes of others, and with the printing press these stories spread widely. When Harriet Beecher Stowe published the anti-slavery novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” in 1852, readers stepped inside a shack they otherwise would not have entered. Once in, it was no longer so easy to relegate the characters to an outgroup.

Third, learn and resist the tactics of dehumanisation. One common ploy is “moral pollution,” in which a group is socially smeared by association with something repulsive: vermin, insects or anything that envelops them in a negative emotional cloud. Once you have a negative emotional reaction to a group, it becomes harder to hear their perspectives. When you can recognise that a person is being attacked for his identity rather than his arguments, you can defend yourself against this trick.

Fourth, “blind” your biases. That is to say, design processes and organisations to remove the chance that prejudices interfere with judgement. For example, many software companies in Silicon Valley ask job candidates to submit code rather than show up in person. Some orchestras institute blind auditions, often leading to more female musicians. Many American universities have a “need-blind” application processes to separate intelligence from financial considerations. Where biases can be subconsciously triggered, it is best to remove the opportunity.

Fifth, entangle group memberships. Work to ensure that communities are intertwined. To see how that might work in practice, consider the five tribes of the Iroquois Native Americans, who fought intensely with each other in the 15th century. A leader named Deganawida forged peace by assigning each tribe member to one of nine different clans: Wolf, Bear, Turtle, Sandpiper, Deer, Beaver, Heron, Eagle or Eel. Thus, members of each clan had representation from all five tribes and crosscutting relationships now unified the community. By emphasising the overlapping dual allegiances—to tribe and to clan—Deganawida complicated the notions of us and them, defanging the intertribal warfare.

Today, we can see progress against bias in the rise of interracial marriages, the destigmatisation of sexual orientation and the desegregation of schools. But we need more progress, and quickly. All around us, factions, states and countries are narrowing their views and falling into partisanship. This is why an understanding of our psychology—and what to do about it—matters.

As we navigate a world that is atomised by social media, riven by partisanship and encircled with nuclear warheads, it becomes critical to recognise and manage the pitfalls of our psychology. Neuroscience gives us an unflinching view of who we are and who we can be. Although we are predisposed to have outgroups and to dehumanise them, we can aim for a better long-term outcome with strategies that forgo innate tribalism and embrace a solidarity with our innate humanness.

_____________

David Eagleman is a neuroscientist at Stanford University and the author of several books on cognition and society. Don Vaughn is a neuroscientist at the University of California Los Angeles and regularly communicates science in the media.

https://www.economist.com/open-future/2019/11/04/does-your-brain-care-about-other-people-it-depends?fsrc=scn/fb/te/bl/ed/guestcommentdavideaglemananddonvaughndoesyourbraincareaboutotherpeopleitdependsopenfuture?fsrc=scn/tw/te/bl/ed/doesyourbraincareaboutotherpeopleitdependsguestcommentdavideaglemananddonvaughn

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Thorin

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