Friday, February 12, 2016

The cognitive biology of empathy and war

An NPR affiliate, KBPS, broadcast this interview on February 10, 2016 with a cognitive neuroscientist who is working on understanding what generates and stifles empathy among individuals in groups who have a potential to enter into a new conflict. The scientist's comments at the end of the interview suggest that existing conflicts may be beyond the reach of cognitive science to affect.

The following are taken from the 15:26 interview at the times indicated. The comments speak for themselves about the fundamentally subjective nature of human cognition and how we both distort and think about the world and world events.

5:40-6:10: As humans, we have biases that we may not always be willing or able to admit to. A large portion of our brain is implicit and what happens we don't have conscious control over (including our biases or prejudices). This aspect of how our brain works is to respond to the world and guide behavior without our knowledge or ability to control the process.

6:10-6:40: An empathy gap can arise when people in one group encounters opinions or arguments that run counter to the group's beliefs. That tends to make even well-reasoned counter opinions not persuasive for most people.

6:40-7:32: There are biases that prevent people from reasoning objectively and lead instead to subjective reasoning. This happens all the time in politics where democrats and republicans have completely different interpretations of the exact same event. In those situations, people tend to uncritically accept arguments and interpretations of event that favor their opinions while critically examining opposing interpretations and arguments. These biases are endemic and part of who we are. It isn't inevitable that biases always dominate, but our brains are potentiated or sensitized to think and act in accord with personal biases.

7:33-7:54: Research has found some people who can overcome their group prejudices but what drives that is not understood and being studied now.

8:50-9:32: Conflicts that arise in different places, cultures and contexts appear to have more in common than not in terms of brain function and the influence of human biases. Externalities such as different languages, religions, reasons for conflict and ethnic groups seem to be less important as drivers of conflict.

9:35-10:18: Our biases are biological and real, not something intangible. However, the brain is plastic or can change and there is evidence that once people become aware of their own biases, they can overcome them to some degree.

10:20-10:57: Can knowledge of biases and how they work be used to reduce conflicts and increase empathy among groups in conflict situations? That does happen in some people and if that anecdotal evidence could be used to understand this aspect of our cognitive biology then that knowledge may be translatable to most people in groups in conflict.

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