Following up on the last post in which we looked at homophily or the "birds of a feather" phenomenon, let's consider a Harvard study about what a brain does when it thinks about people believed to be different, perhaps people of a different ethnic, cultural, or political group. Researchers looked at what happened in the brains of liberal college students when they thought about Christian conservatives.
From "Brain Scans Get at Roots of Prejudice" (an article covering the study) . . .
As they did so, a brain region strongly linked to the self and to empathy with others nearly shut down, while another center -- perhaps linked to stereotypic thoughts -- swung into high gear.
"It's as if you think that 'they' don't think like you do -- it's like you believe they are governed by a different set of rules when they think," explained study author Dr. Jason Mitchell, . . . .
According to Mitchell, social psychologists have long known that people engage different mental criteria when thinking about the possible thoughts and actions of people within their own ethnic, cultural or political group, vs. those outside that group.
Knowledge of cognitive biases such as ingroup bias is certainly not new but learning about the neurological mechanisms is. There is still much research to be done to achieve fuller understanding of how we think about others but this study is a step.
One focus area of Mitchell's research is something very important for anyone wanting to understand interpersonal communication and conflict: "other-ness."
"Our work is about 'other-ness,' " Mitchell said. "There's this question of 'How do I figure out what's going on inside your head? How do I make inferences about what you are feeling?' "
How do we figure it out?
One theory that's gained credence among social neuroscientists is that people look to themselves when thinking about people they already include in their "group."
"If you and I are similar, then I can use what I know about myself to figure out what you are thinking," said Mitchell . . . .
This kind of research showing that different parts of the brain light up depending upon whom you are thinking about, someone in your group or someone outside your group, is of significance for many kinds of disputes. It brings a new element of complexity and sophistication to understanding conflict.
"These data challenge the naive view that we bring the same mental orientation to bear when we think about those who are similar or different from us," said study co-author Dr. Mahzarin Banaji, a professor of social ethics in Harvard's department of psychology. . . .
Dr. Elizabeth Phelps, a professor of psychology and neural science at New York University in New York City, agreed that most of this is not new to psychology, "but what we know now is more about how this is represented in the prefrontal cortex."
Phelps also believes that we might be able to override our ingrained "dorsal" response to strangers. "I imagine that you can think compassionately, highlighting similarities between you and another person that will change your interpretation of their actions," she said.
We know that you can achieve that overriding. Seeking common ground as mentioned in the last post is one way but this means may have its limits . . .
[F]or most people, finding out that Adolf Hitler loved dogs "isn't going to be enough" to mentally allow him into one's group -- even for the most hardened dog-lover, Mitchell said.
One essential tool for overriding is self-awareness. Very practical methods are available to increase self-awareness in yourself and your clients. (And, no, you do not have to ask your clients to meditate.)
At one level, this research is a valuable piece of the puzzle. And self-awareness shows another level. We are not at the mercy of our brains. As Jeff said in an upcoming NPR interview, "Our brains are receivers, not generators." The person described by Phelps, the compassionate one, has self-awareness and is not thinking with that accidental brain. He or she has a brain on purpose.