For many of us, the flood of tribal hate and violence in the news can lead to a feeling of inevitability, that we human beings are inherently at the throats of those unlike us, and that it will be forever so. But for those in the conflict resolution field, there is a quietly growing effort to find hope in a new area: neuroscience.
Some who work with ethnic, racial and religious conflict are pairing with neuroscientists to understand how small advancements in brain research can help explain how we experience emotions like prejudice and disgust and fear. It will be a while before researchers are able to devise many specific strategies for using that knowledge of how the brain works in the peace-building process. But simply teaching people that there is a neurological basis for prejudice has the potential to help them view the deep-seated roots of their conflicts more objectively, says Timothy Phillips, co-founder of the conflict resolution organization Beyond Conflict.
“There is something deeply powerful about knowing it’s not just about culture, race, ethnicity – that all those things sit on an operating system called the human brain, and that that is universal,” says Phillips. “Contrary to social and political science that says humans are rational, we are deeply emotional beings. What drives our behavior is deeply emotionally based but we don’t even have access to what drives us.”
Phillips was among a group that met at the El-Hibri Foundation in Washington for the first in a series of meetings connecting neuroscientists and peace-builders who work on issues including the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and discrimination against racial and ethnic groups.
Emile Bruneau, a cognitive neuroscientist at MIT who has made advances in showing how stereotypes are formed and reinforced, how empathy develops, and how such things might be rewired to advance peace, presented some of his research at the conference. A participant in conflict resolution programs held around the globe, he recounted a story about a peace-building retreat he’d been part of with some 100 Protestant and Catholic youth from Northern Ireland. Participants had spent several days in small group discussions, doing art and performance projects together – classic efforts considered successful at fostering better relations. At the end of the camp, as the children were saying goodbye, a fight broke out that immediately pulled in the entire group, totally breaking down on religious lines. “To me, that’s not an indication that this effort was particularly successful,” Bruneau said.
The point of the story is that peace-builders need cutting edge social and neuroscience in order to understand what really works in changing behavior. They need to understand not just what people are thinking, but how they think. “Common sense and good will are not enough,” he said in a later interview.
One example of the new research focuses on how different parts of our brains activate depending on whether we feel disgust or fear. This suggests that conflict-resolution programs aimed at reducing fear should be distinct from those whose aim is to reduce disgust, Phillips said. “Historically, disgust leads to genocide,” he said.
Fear can trigger what is known as “stereotype threat,” in our brains, Bruneau said, affecting our performance on something as basic as an IQ test if we feel we are being stereotyped. One research effort showed that if a math test, for example, is presented as something that tests “your natural ability,” women will perform more poorly “because it cues them into a stereotype.”
Jeremy Ginges from the New School for Social Research presented research showing we process not just emotions, but different values in distinct parts of our brain. These include what he labeled as “sacred values” – ones that we don’t wish to put on the bargaining table. Attempts to put those values on the bargaining table may backfire and cause us to tighten our hold. Peace-builders have to understand that and, for example, not try to offer one party financial incentives in exchange for a sacred value.
A favorite Bruneau analogy is that the brain is like a rider on an elephant. The rider is the part of our brains with which we directly communicate. “The elephant is the large portion you have no introspective access to. The elephant is guiding your behavior, but you’re unaware of its affect,” he said. New research is “an awareness that social norms, for example, can be leveraged. We can build [peace-building] interventions not for the rider but for the elephants.”
Part of the plan for using neuroscience research is to increase awareness of neuroscience as a powerful factor that combines with social, economic and religious forces that feed prejudice. There’s hope in “simply teaching people how malleable humans are, how we can change,” Bruneau said. “That’s a liberating thing. Everything we know about the brain shows that it can be changed.”
Although the research is focused on peace-keeping applications, there are things that individuals can do to reduce their own biases. he said.
“Prejudices don’t need your explicit endorsement to become entrenched,” Bruneau said. “And they often harden in place beyond your conscious awareness. One approach people have taken is to feed themselves associations that run counter to what they are absorbing through the media. For example, by consuming American media your brain is learning that Arabs and Muslims are terrifying.
“You can counter that by providing yourself with positive examples of the same group [He suggests making a visual reminder your computer screensaver.]. For a number of other biases, like ‘stereotype threat,’ awareness of the process breaks the spell. So the hope is that we can train ourselves to make the unconscious processes conscious.”