Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Human Brutality, Part II

For almost all of human history, right up until the 1990s, motivation—why we do what we do—was a matter for philosophy. Reason was the only tool available for trying to make sense of human behavior.

Do we always act in accordance with what we perceive to be best for ourselves (“maximizing utility” in the words of the theorists)? Or are we sometimes moved by sheer, objective altruism to do what’s best for others? Are we usually aware of why we do things, or are we motivated by deep, unconscious desires? Are some people born evil, or is there some good even in people who commit the most heinous acts? These and many others are questions that thinkers have pondered for millennia.

And now, to the dismay of those who like things neat and tidy, it turns out the answer to most of these kinds of questions is, “All of the above.”

New knowledge of biochemistry and the nervous system is beginning to unravel the secrets of the human brain, which turns out to be a far more sensitive, adaptable, and complex organ than anyone had previously imagined. As we absorb data through our senses, the brain is not only processing and making sense of it but also responding to what we perceive. We now know that the brain physically changes throughout our lifetime in accordance with our habits of thought and what we experience (a quality neuroscientists call “plasticity”).

Thus, when people lose one of their senses—becoming blind, for example, through illness or injury—the area of the brain once devoted to processing that sensory input is taken over by brain cells devoted to other functions. The area devoted to hearing, for example, may expand into the area once devoted to sight. So when a blind person develops more acute hearing, it’s not just a matter of the person’s attention having shifted from one type of stimuli to another; rather, their brain has changed to better respond to new circumstances.

Moreover, different parts of the brain can be used to process the same information in different ways. Take language processing, for example: studies with functional MRIs (fMRIs) show that different parts of the brain are active depending upon whether the subject is reading, listening to, or writing the same text. This helps explain why people who stutter when they speak can usually sing the same words with perfect fluency—different parts of the brain are in charge of speaking and singing.

Imaging techniques like fMRIs show us that our attention is like a controller at a switch board: whenever we shift our attention from one thing to another, energy instantly shifts to a different part of the brain. You’re driving down the street, listening to music and thinking pleasant thoughts: you’re brain’s behaving one way. Someone cuts you off and almost causes an accident: the world changes in an instant, and your thoughts, feelings and actions are entirely different than they might have been otherwise.

The limbic system is the “emotional” part of the brain; most rational thought and planning ahead occurs in the frontal cortex. When we choose to think rationally (a choice many people aren’t’ even aware they can make), we’re really deciding to process our experience through the frontal cortex—which can be hard work—rather than turning it over to the more automatic and impulsive “emotional” part of the brain.

We often make the shift unconsciously from thinking with one part of our brain to thinking with another. When something makes us uncomfortable, for example, we may literally “turn off” one part of our brain and shift to another. That’s why some people are better than others at staying cool in a crisis: they’re more skilled at turning off the part of their brain that would react with panic or anxiety and shifting to the part that allows them to just do what needs to be done.

Some things are best handled by the limbic system; if a bear is after you, there’s no time to think. It’s best to listen to your limbic system if it tells your body to run!

Other things—including most matters of public policy—are best handled by the frontal cortex.

In a perfect world, we’d all know about how our brain works and whether we’re reacting to something emotionally or intellectually. But new knowledge can take generations to become widely understood within a culture. So as things stand now, it’s mostly scientists and geeks interested in brain science who are aware of how the functioning of the brain affects decision making.

Consequently, the public can be gullible, and people can be easily manipulated. In recent years (and especially in recent months), we’ve seen this gullibility used to advantage by people who—instinctively, if not scientifically—know more about human behavior than the average person.

If you want people to think and feel a certain way, there are basically two ways to do it: by emotional manipulation or by persuasion—in other words, by targeting either the emotional or the rational part of their brains.

Regular readers of this blog know where I’m going with this. The great divide in terms of political discourse in this country right now is between reason and emotion. There’s a struggle going on between those who want people to think and those who want them simply to react. Among elected officials, there are those who do the hard intellectual work of analyzing situations and solving problems and those who simply emote. There are those who want to whip their constituents into a frenzy of emotional anger and those who want them to understand some of the complexities of the problems that face us all, in this country and on this planet.

Angry people are easy to manipulate. They form mobs and follow the person with the loudest voice or the cockiest attitude. However, they’re also unpredictable and—after a certain point—notoriously hard to control. They follow their passions, and sometimes they destroy things—even the things and people they love the most.

Those who are deliberately using fear tactics, incendiary language, and misleading arguments to “stir up their base” do so at their peril—and ours. The recent arousal of the American vigilante movement—largely fueled by irresponsible political rhetoric from the extreme right—is a much more real and present threat to this country than anything Osama bin Laden may try to dream up.


Six said...

...and there it is.

Where are your posts about human psychology on sheepishness of the average American to play the game of blue team versus red team? Your attempts to discredit opposing positions by making those who hold those positions out to be crazy for doing so is nothing more than an attempt to kill discourse rather than open it up.

You post about the public being gullible and easily manipulated highlights how you are in fact blinded by emotion. I was reminded today how easily emotionally manipulated so-called 'progressives' can be themselves. The presidents call to open up offshore drilling is just one more issue in which he has proven to be what amounts to Bush's third term. What is funny is how this morning I was listening to openly left-leaning commentators make the same arguments that the 'drill baby drill' crowd was not even two years ago (while the same lefties at the time were mocking them for it).

How many left-leaners were against our continued occupation of Iraq two years ago, and now support it (I actually heard one left-leaning journalist making the argument yesterday that he has changed his position and now thinks invading Iraq was a GOOD thing!)? How many were in favor of us getting out of Afghanistan and opposed to nation-building two years ago and now support it? How many were against indefinate detention that now support it? How many were against many of the infringing parts of the Patriot Act that gave Bush tremendous power, now support those unconstitutional powers belonging to Obama? How many were opposed to Medicare expansion and the impacts on the deficit that now support going further? How many were opposed to increased Federal mandates/standards in education (NCLB) that now support going further as Obama promises? How many were against drilling offshore that now support it? I can keep going... but the only real difference is now we have someone in office who wears a different color jersey (blue team).

If we had a Republican president who pushed through a healthcare bill that overwhelmingly subsidizes private insurance companies (while quite literally and openly buying off votes with bribes), advocated drilling offshore, offered government loan guarantees for private new nuclear plants, supported and signed basically every Patriot Act provision extension, while also icreasing troop levels in Iraq and Afghanistan while openly talking about our future presence there for decades to come - there would be Seattle-like WTO protests nearly every weekend. Is this what you voted for? Is this hope and change?

Citizen Jane said...

Wow, Six. That was quite the emotional response from someone who usually thinks quite rationally.

My point had nothing to do with the issues being debated but rather how they're debated. Off-shore drilling is a great example. I happen to abhor the notion of off-shore drilling--just as I abhor the idea of risking the release of radioactive materials into the environment. But I happen to trust this President and this government to tackle complex problems--including both the energy and environmental crises--with an informed, nuanced approach. As with health care, this administration has been encouraging the best experts and most creative minds in the country to weigh in.

So in the context of the entire situation, I am willing to put up with parts of the solution I disagree with, knowing that there are parts I can embrace. No approach or piece of legislation is going to please everyone.

Like you and me, most progressives are opposed to off-shore drilling. However, if we behaved like the conservatives did about health care, there'd be wailing in the streets, threats about the "end of the world as we know it," predictions about dead whales and baby seals washing up on every shore . . . You get the idea.

Anyone who's watched Obama with the least bit of objective scrutiny knows that, unlike his predecessor, his motive in pushing for nuclear power and off-shore drilling is not simply to enrich the power and oil companies--and, in the process, line his own coffers. The motivations of this administration go much, much deeper than that.

Sue said...

You raise some interesting points, Jane, but my impression is that it's mostly a rehash of the old intellect vs emotion argument. It's not an "either-or" question. Philosophers have long differentiated humans from other creatures based on our ability to overcome our emotional responses in favor of rational ones. Your example of the bear, for instance. Yes, our primal urge may b to run; the person who survives is more likely to notice that there are alternatives -- possibly a tree to climb, a boat to cast off in, a fence to get over -- any of which would improve survival chances.

We make rational/emotional decisions all the time -- everything from "I'd really love another piece of that chocolate cake, but I sure don't need the calories, so I won't have any more" to "man, I really want that 52 inch flat screen TV but I sure can't afford it right now so I won't get it" to you name it. And, yes, people can use emotions to incite others to behave in inappropriate ways, but your presentation suggests that the people lack a choice. Totally untrue. Even if it's just at a very basic level, people who choose to "follow the crows" do make a choice. Nobody MAKES them join a riot, throw a brick through a window, make off with that flat screen TV they couldn't afford, etc.

As to the political inferences you draw, you seem to be saying that unscrupulous politicians use emotion to achieve their political goals. I have to agree, but it's not limited to one side of the aisle. Take the recent health coverage debate, for example. There was as much appeal to emotion by those who wanted the bill passed as there was by those who opposed it. It's part of the game.

Finally, does it occur to you that anger may be a legitimate response to feeling abused and/or ignored? It is legitimate (rational, logical) for different people to have different opinions based on the same "facts." When the minority isn't listened to and respected, when there's no attempt at the very important political tool of "compromise" then anger is not an unreasonable response. How would you feel if you were on the ignored/neglected side?

By the way, one of the reasons the founding fathers limited voting rights to a certain few (landowning men) was because they felt that those men would have both a stake in the outcome and a maturity that would promote good judgment. Want to go back to that?

Citizen Jane said...

Hi, Sue,

Of course you're right that human beings are BOTH emotional and intellectual beings, and it's never a case of "either-or." Would that the issue were that simple. Emotions motivate us to act, but reason should determine HOW we act to solve problems.

Again, my focus is on the nature of arguments and assertions: true or false, in context or out of context, objectively stated or emotionally loaded. And while both sides can use both kinds of arguments, it's extremists who rely on the ones that are false, out of context, and emotionally loaded. Recently, there have been a lot more extremists on the right, and they've been making a lot of noise.

A boy loses his mother to breast cancer because she couldn't afford a mammogram. True. "Death panels." False. The projections over ten years based on findings of the Congressional Budget Office. In context. "Tax and spend! Adding to the deficit!" Out of context (and untrue). As for over-the-top rhetoric from the right, examples abound--from "socialism" to "the end of the country as we know it" to "locked and loaded."

Sorry, Sue, but both sides have definitely not been equal in terms of the balance of their arguments or the nature of their appeal to the masses.

Sue said...

"A boy loses his mother to breast cancer because she couldn't afford a mammogram. True. "Death panels." False. The projections over ten years based on findings of the Congressional Budget Office. In context. "Tax and spend! Adding to the deficit!" Out of context (and untrue). As for over-the-top rhetoric from the right, examples abound--from "socialism" to "the end of the country as we know it" to "locked and loaded.""

Sorry, Jane. These are allegations and interpretations. They are not undisputed facts. For example: "Because she couldn't afford a mammogram." My sister had a "clean" mammogram just a couple of months before she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She discovered a lump through self-exam: proactive responsible behavior which led to her seeing a doctor -- an option that is open even to uninsured people through community clinics and other options.

"Congressional Budget Office projections." Projections are estimates. They may or may not be accurate. To say that they are "true" while other projections (even based on the same data) are false, isn't rational in my book.

My impression is that you like (agree with) the "over-the-top" rhetoric of the Democrats, so it's rational. You disagree with people on the other side, so their statements are inflammatory. I tend to think that both sides are using inflammatory arguments. It's my responsibility to cut through the hype and determine what's believable and what to take with a grain of salt. If we start with the premise that none of them are truly "objective" we'll be in a better place to make sound, rational judgments.

Six said...

I tend to avoid movies that I know are going to put me in to a sour mood, but last night we watched 'Brothers' not realizing what the movie was about (Afghanistand war and it's impact on one family).

It reminded me of a man who campaigned as the anti-war candidate who stood opposite to Bush on most every issue, but has ruled in lock-step with most of Bushes policies, especially Iraq and Afghanistan taking them one further than I believe the left would have allowed even Bush to go. This morning hearing about the off-shore drilling and the Obama-apologists who universally nod thier head in approval because he is the blue team captain and 'if he is for it, then it must be good' mentality... that would quite literally lead to marching in the streets today given the entire body of work Obama has produced about a 1/3 of the way through his presedency if he were wearing a red jersey. So if my tone is unusually sour today, I blame the movie last night for kicking off a mood.

And about his motives and intentions... well, we all know the saying about intentions...

Six said...

Also with regards to intentions... Aside from this attempt to gain more support for Cap 'n Trade, I am sure this has nothing to do with the two states most greatly impacted positively on this are Virginia and Florida while also, "proposed leases in Alaska's Bristol Bay would be canceled". Virginia and Florida both should expect to see boosts to thier local state economies in a big way. Both also are hotly contested and important swing-states... Alaska, not so much.

But then again, I am sure his motives are pure.

Idna said...

Six and Sue made some great points, so I won't rehash. As I was reading the sentence, "Regular readers of this blog know where I’m going with this." I thought, Yep ... let the Right Bashing begin, as that is the usual, enventual end to whatever topic is discussed on this blog.

There was a funny juxtaposition of computer screen and TV as I was finishing reading Jane's post. The computer screen was complaining about the violent, angry Right.

TV screen was showing a group of raving mad college students screaming and chanting holding hateful posters. WHY??? Because Sarah Palin was going to speak at their school.

Wasn't college supposed to be a place to explore thought? All thought? Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is invited to speak on an American campus, but an ex-governor and Vice-Presidential candidate is barred? So much for the "open minded, tolerant" left.

BTW ... here's the irony. Sarah was there to raise funds for the school .. to save a Professor's job who was going to be laid off because of budget cuts. Way to go, students!

How come none of these leftie crazies ... Code Pink, disgusting protestors at soldiers' funerals, clueless college students, people who give death threats to Republicans and shoot up their headquarters, etc. ... how come you ignore these groups when you talk about hate groups, Jane.

Six said...

I came across this link at another blog I follow and it seemed appropriate to cross-link here on this subject:

The blog where I saw this posted:

Citizen Jane said...

Thanks for the "trip down memory lane" clip, Six! Great illustration of over-the-top rhetoric on the left. I guess emotional thinking looks pretty much the same, regardless of who indulges in it.

I still think there's a big distinction between the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But war is never a good thing, and there's no doubt about it--the sooner we can get out of there, the better.

Idna said...

There certainly IS a big distinction between the 2 wars. An article in Salon addresses the issue of drugs in Afghanistan. "In ways that have escaped most observers, the Obama administration is now trapped in an endless cycle of drugs and death in Afghanistan from which there is neither an easy end nor an obvious exit."

Really worth a read to see how outside involvement in that country has made things go from bad to worse.
Click for Salon article

Idna said...

For some reason the link I just put up doesn't seem to work. So I'll try this:

Hope this works.