Monday, August 25, 2014

ferguson and beheadings...,



psychologytoday |  In the modern world we cannot depend on blind evolutionary forces to ensure cooperation. We long ago left the savannah and the world of bands and clans constantly competing and fighting with one another. In the modern world we need to find a way for “the group” to be defined as all of us. And in the modern world, we need to confront the selfish forces that divide us.

The problem is that this presents an extraordinary challenge to us all psychologically speaking.
If we care about each other, then it hurts to see others suffer. If we defend against that hurt selfishly such as by defining people as “other” (and thus not in our group, and not to be treated humanely) then our ability to maintain a modern, diversified, interconnected world is harmed.

A series of recent studies in my lab and other contextual behavioral science laboratories around the world helps us see the specific shape of the challenge we face. My former student, Roger Vilardaga (now at the University of Washington), has named this model the “Flexible Connectedness” model. It claims that caring about others requires three skills:1
  1. You have to be able to take the perspective of others.
  2. You have to have empathy.
  3. You have to not run away when it is hard.
Taking another person’s perspective means you know a bit of what it might be like to look out from behind their eyes. In our research we measure that in a very geeky way using an experimental task but the kinds of questions used in the task are easy to understand. When he was four, I trained my son in some of the perspective-taking basics while driving around in my car. “Stevie” I said, “If I were you and you were me what would you be looking at right now?” He would pause and say, correctly, “the road.” The ability to come up with answers like that across time, place, and person and their combination is what the task measures (the equivalent of Stevie being asked, “Now I’m driving but yesterday I was asleep.  If I were you and you were me and today were yesterday and yesterday were today what would you be looking at right now?”)

That skill is how we can begin to answer the questions I asked at the beginning of this article. But it is only skill one.

By empathy I just mean the ability to feel what others might feel in a particular situation. I don’t mean agreement or sympathy necessarily – we can feel the anger of a zealot without agreeing with it or personally buying into its dictates. This skill goes beyond merely knowing another’s point of view. It includes understanding the emotional impact deeply enough to feel that impact.

These two skills sound simple—and in an intellectual sense they are—but it is the third feature of flexible connectedness that shows what a challenge these simple skills can bring in the modern world.
You have to have the ability to feel pain without avoidance or an easy escape into judgment. You have to sit inside the horror, sadness, anger, or loneliness and not run away—opening up to emotions and thoughts as emotions and thoughts, not as what they declare themselves to be.

Again, I invite you to reconsider the questions I opened with. For some, seeing things through the eyes of victim or killer may feel “overwhelming” or “unacceptable”, so we shut them down consequently reducing our ability to relate to people as people.