A father in Louisiana bludgeoned and beheaded his disabled 7-year-old son last August because he no longer wanted to care for the boy. For most people, such a heinous act is unconscionable.
But it may be that a person can become callous enough to commit human atrocities because of a failure in the part of the brain that’s critical for social interaction. A new study by researchers at Duke University and Princeton University suggests this function may disengage when people encounter others they consider disgusting, thus “dehumanizing” their victims by failing to acknowledge they have thoughts and feelings.
This shortcoming also may help explain how propaganda depicting Tutsi in Rwanda as cockroaches and Hitler’s classification of Jews in Nazi Germany as vermin contributed to torture and genocide, the study said.
“When we encounter a person, we usually infer something about their minds. Sometimes, we fail to do this, opening up the possibility that we do not perceive the person as fully human,” said lead author Lasana Harris, an assistant professor in Duke University’s Department of Psychology & Neuroscience and Center for Cognitive Neuroscience. Harris co-authored the study with Susan Fiske, a professor of psychology at Princeton University.
Social neuroscience has shown through MRI studies that people normally activate a network in the brain related to social cognition — thoughts, feelings, empathy, for example — when viewing pictures of others or thinking about their thoughts. But when participants in this study were asked to consider images of people they considered drug addicts, homeless people, and others they deemed low on the social ladder, parts of this network failed to engage.
What’s especially striking, the researchers said, is that people will easily ascribe social cognition — a belief in an internal life such as emotions — to animals and cars, but will avoid making eye contact with the homeless panhandler in the subway.
“We need to think about other people’s experience,” Fiske said. “It’s what makes them fully human to us.”…
- A brain’s failure to appreciate others may permit human atrocities (esciencenews.com)
- A brain’s failure to appreciate others may permit human atrocities (eurekalert.org)
- Why Leaders Should Care About Cognitive Neuroscience (forbes.com)
- Scientists’ Idea Helps Explain ‘What and Where’ People See (prnewswire.com)
- Wisdom through Mindfulness: Cognitive Neuroscience of Mindfulness Meditation (adultadhdhelp.net)
Emotional intelligence peaks as we enter our 60s, research suggests
Older people may have a harder time keeping a lid on their feeings, but they’re better at seeing the positive side of a stressful situation
Older people have a hard time keeping a lid on their feelings, especially when viewing heartbreaking or disgusting scenes in movies and reality shows, psychologists have found. But they’re better than their younger counterparts at seeing the positive side of a stressful situation and empathizing with the less fortunate, according to research from the University of California, Berkeley.
A team of researchers led by UC Berkeley psychologist Robert Levenson is tracking how our emotional strategies and responses change as we age. Their findings – published over the past year in peer-review journals – support the theory that emotional intelligence and cognitive skills can actually sharpen as we enter our 60s, giving older people an advantage in the workplace and in personal relationships.
“Increasingly, it appears that the meaning of late life centers on social relationships and caring for and being cared for by others,” Levenson said. “Evolution seems to have tuned our nervous systems in ways that are optimal for these kinds of interpersonal and compassionate activities as we age.”
In the first study, researchers looked at how 144 healthy adults in their 20s, 40s and 60s reacted to neutral, sad and disgusting film clips. In particular, they examined how participants used techniques known as “detached appraisal,” “positive reappraisal” and “behavior suppression.” Heading up that study was Michelle Shiota, now an assistant professor of psychology at Arizona State University. The findings were published in the journal, Psychology and Aging.