Friday, April 03, 2015

psychological science and social change? how you gonna manage the reptile brain?

NYTimes |  “I wanted the research I was doing to match the stuff I was thinking about,” he says. “And I just felt more and more that the most relevant level of analysis for generating social change was the psychological level.”

He started looking into conflict-intervention programs and discovered that there were hundreds more like the one he volunteered for in Ireland, and that hardly any of them had been scientifically validated. No one was really checking to see if the programs accomplished their stated goals, or even if their stated goals were the best ones for achieving the desired outcomes. “They have all these very straightforward metrics like building trust, and building empathy, that sound totally reasonable,”
Bruneau says. “But it turns out that a lot of those common-sense approaches can be way off-base.”

Increasing empathy seemed to be a key goal of every conflict-resolution program he looked at; he thought this reflected a misconception about the type of people who engage in political violence. “If Hollywood is to be believed, they’re all sociopaths,” he says. “But that’s not the reality. Suicide bombers tend to be characterized by, if anything, very high levels of empathy. Wafa Idris, the first Palestinian woman suicide bomber, was a volunteer paramedic during the second Intifada.”
Bruneau developed a theory to explain this paradox: When considering an enemy, the mind generates an “empathy gap.” It mutes the empathy signal, and that muting prevents us from putting ourselves in the perceived enemy’s shoes. He couldn’t yet guess at the mechanism behind the phenomenon, but he hypothesized that it had nothing to do with how empathetic a person was by nature. Even the most deeply empathetic people could mute their empathy signals under the right circumstances. And it was difficult to determine what role empathy played in group conflicts. Increasing empathy might be great at improving pro-social behavior among individuals, but if a program succeeded in boosting an individual’s empathy for his or her own group, he reasoned, it might actually increase hostility toward the enemy.