Suzanne Kryder Interviews Mari Fitzduff, professor at Brandeis University
MF: The thing that becomes very clear too when you’re working in this field is that all of us should beware that we are capable of doing things that are pretty awful.
I suspect that a few of us have been in contacts where, for instance, our families were threatened. If you had somebody coming towards you as so many did in Rwanda and your children were going to be murdered, what would you do in return? You would probably find in yourself that capacity for violence that you don’t understand was there.
On the other hand, in many Western developed societies, we’ve managed to order the revenge that people might feel because wrongs have been done to them.
There is a lot of evidence to show that there are good ways of actually dealing with revenge, that in fact people won’t go and take out their guns and shoot the people they are deeming responsible.
So an awful lot of whether we’re good or bad is not actually about whether we as people are good or bad, but whether we’re lucky enough to have a context in which we can have our goodness flourish or in a very difficult situation where difficult and pretty negative aspects of ourselves can come to the fore.
There’s also I think something that I understood from my own conversations with paramilitaries both here and elsewhere, I think in Northern Ireland particularly I found that there were three different reasons why young men took up with the Irelands and one was very much looking it as a historical role that they took up, particularly within the Republican Movement, many of the people who came to lead the movement were people whose histories had actually spoken to them of the violence that was needed to get the British out of Ireland where they had been for almost one thousand years.
The second level were those who took up the violence because they hadn’t initially been committed to it, but something had happened in their lives; their cousin or their granny had been killed by the IRA or loyalists had actually murdered some children in their street or indeed British soldiers had broken into their house in the middle of the night to people who completely innocent of any connection with the Irelands.
The third one was one that was very predominant, particularly in working class areas where many of the men were unemployed.
In the first instance they were actually asked just to protect their community because at that stage, there was a lot of sectarian violence, but very soon that protection often turned into actually active violence. These were mostly men who had felt adrift, who had nothing in their lives; they had no work, they very often didn’t have relationships or children and they found that this was a way of being a hero, both to other young men in the community and to themselves.
I think if you understand why people, as it were, take up the gun, it begins to be much more complex than we sometimes see it. I’ve been very struck by the fact that certainly many of the people I have known who have taken up violence, they’re actually very moral in other ways. In other words, they’re not the psychopaths that we think them to be. They actually have a cause which they’ve committed themselves to and committed themselves to use violence, but it does not mean that in another situation they would be violent men. Indeed, there is much research that actually shows this.
SK: It sounds like it’s something about being a hero in the brain, but you can a hero in lots of different ways, so how can we as listeners, how can listeners out there try to elicit the hero in people, the good part of people? What can we do to build peace?
MF: If we are lucky, our children have ways in being heroes that are very productive. Very often within situations where jobs are available, where going to a university is the norm, where people have lots of sports opportunities, where they can go and do, as it were, international service that is peaceful rather than violent, you’ll find that they’re much less likely to try to be heroes in ways that actually take up violence.
I prefer to see young men who adopt violence as trying to be heroic in the wrong way and therefore what they need is ways to protect people, ways to look after their communities, ways to propagate their faith in ways that are positive ways rather than negative ways.
Certainly when I have looked a people who moved from violence, it’s not because they’ve often given up on their cause, but they found a different way to pursue their cause. Often that was through advocacy, sometimes it was through the law, sometimes it was through politics, but they haven’t necessarily given up on their goal, they just find a better way to do their goal.
I think that is why it behooves all of us to try to make sure that, for every conflict there is around the world, there are people also trying to find non-violent ways, more peaceful ways, more peace-building that can actually contribute to what is a way out of the conflict in which people see themselves.
One of the mistakes that we sometimes make is that we sometimes claim our field is about conflict resolution. It is not. There are conflicts in everyday life. There should be conflicts in everyday life. Much of the inequities that we have in our societies can only be managed by people actually conflicting against them, taking an advocacy stance against them.
What we have as people who are committing violence and we want to try to persuade them to actually address the conflict in a different way, so it’s quite reassuring. We’re not trying to solve conflicts in the world. We’re actually, in some ways, saying we should promote conflict, but what we should be promoting is better ways to deal with other than taking up the gun and the bomb as so many of our people do.
SK: In terms of the hero, where do you think the idea of using violence as a path to heroism comes from, both traditionally and in modern times?
MF: I suppose the easiest way to think about the use of violence by those who see themselves as heroes is actually just to look around us. Go to your village square, go to your towns, go to your cities; who are the people who are enamored in the statues, who are the people who are remembered in the memorials?
Unfortunately, we actually don’t have that many heroes who are remembered for their valor in terms of their peace-building capacities. The Gandhi’s, the Martin Luther King’s, the Mandela’s, are few and far between. It’s actually quite difficult to find people who are deemed to be heroic and who actually have garnered for themselves a reputation so that they can be stimulating others to be as heroic as they are.
Most of the time, in terms of the way we look at heroes, in terms of the way we look at our TV games, our films, most of the time it is about the use of violence.
I do wish that we had a lot more heroes who were those who chose not to, who stood out against it. I was just looking recently at the history of conscientious objectors. Conscientious objectors are people who I would say, in many cases, are heroes. They have said that it’s wrong to do this to other countries. We have to find different ways to do it but we’re very much in a minority.
The majority of people see strength as being the factor that’s needed to protect them and their people and their families and they see that strength exemplified in the weaponry that a country has.
It’s really interesting; we’ve come through two wars. I’ve living in the United States through the wars of Iraq and the wars of Afghanistan.
Many military people that I speak to know that the wars of the future cannot be dealt with with ever increasing the kind of weaponry that the United States has, the arsenal that it has at its disposal.
They know that the wars of the future are not going to be about who has the biggest and the best of guns or drones, they’re going to be wars of ideas, they’re going to be wars of culture, they’re going to be wars of languages, they’re going to be wars of social psychology, they’re going to be wars of anthropology. They are not wars that we can win.
I think this is why so many people feel so sad although understanding why we go into Syria, and the UK has agreed to go in as well with their force trying to, as it were, limit other force, but that’s not the way that we know that we can win. We know that, in many ways, it will only increase the violence of the countries that we think we’re helping.
I think what is interesting to me is that I find many within the military actually convinced of this and many tell me that they are not the ones who are asking for bigger and better planes and drones. It’s actually, in many cases, the politicians who are asking for bigger and better in terms of their arsenal, partly because they want their people to feel that they’re doing their best in terms of defending the country for them and defending their families for them, but also because we have a huge trade.
A lot of employment is actually tied into the military industry. I think some of the military are afraid that that sense of not wanting to lose that kind of occupation.
In addition to the sense of it seeming to be about security, it is a really problematic one in terms of our moving on to knowing that the wars of the future are going to be very, very different from the wars of the past. Yes, some of them will still be fought with the latest of weapons, but by and large, it’s not the weapons that are going to enable us to find different ways for different countries, different migrations, different peoples to live together in terms of the kind of diversity that’s now striking hard and fast and, in some cases, very rich and fulfilling in terms of many parts of our world.
I think when we look at heroism, it’s funny; we seem to look at the heroism of our young soldiers who go out legally to fight for their country as being a different thing to the heroism of others who might fight against forces in their country that they feel exclude them or are problematic for their community.
We actually encourage heroism. We couldn’t survive in our armies without heroism. It is the draw, as it were, for so many young men, and some women increasingly, the idea of being a hero, to fight for a side, to fight for your country.
The problem is of course that we see our heroes as different from the heroes of those in the armies that are against us.
So for ours, we sing their praises. We seem them as loyal and in public we will talk about their valiant behavior, etc., but we will not see the other side as having those same kinds of characteristics.
It is always the same whether it’s regular battles between countries or whether it is battles between now, increasingly, countries and actually groups that are seen more as affecting guerilla warfare in terms of their conflict.
So I think we have to seriously think about where the ideas of heroism come from, why do people have an idea that it’s more heroic to go out and fight for their country with a gun than to go to a medical school and learn how to deal with diseases and to save the lives of so many people.
We actually give models, in terms of the idea that in fact you are a hero if you will take up the gun or the drone or the bomb for your country, but of course those who do it for another country are seen as really problematic. They’re not seen as good people. They’re certainly not seen as heroes.
So this term “heroic” very much depends. It’s a bit like the term “terrorist” which is such a problematic one. None of our folks are terrorists. Almost always, the other sides are. Yet, they may actually think that they’re fighting for some of the same values that we are, they’re just fighting us as opposed to us fighting them.
Suzanne Kryder Interviews Emile Bruneau, visiting professor at University of Pennsylvania
Suzanne Kryder: Because we’re talking about peacemaking, what areas of the brain relate to peace the most?
Emile Bruneau: Well, that’s what we’re trying to work out right now. We have some guesses.
One particular area that is really interesting to me is we have some very discreet regions in the brain that we’ve been able to localize in past studies that we know are specifically tuned to what we call “Theory of Mind.” That is thinking about what somebody else is thinking. This I think is a really key component of types of misunderstandings that are driving inner group conflict. You might think that the other group has more nefarious intentions than they actually do for example. We’re interested in examining what’s going on if we can get a measurable and usable signal pair.
But there are other regions that we’re just not sure of. For example, we’ve done recent research on dehumanization; the tendency to think of another group as a little bit less evolved and civilized than your own and that work is about trying to identify some regions that are responsible for this type of perception and since this perception also might be driving conflict, it might give us a hint on where in the brain to look in future interventions that are aimed at decreasing dehumanization towards the other group for example.
The gold mine for me would be – I think the big power of neuro imaging and what gives it so much appeal to me is that we know that a lot of the biases that people hold towards other groups are unconscious. That is, we have a number of ways that we can be prejudice towards another group that we’re aware of, but there are a whole other set of processes that are going on in the brain that are completely unconscious and opaque to introspection. This is just a biological reality. This is how the brain works. This is how it’s organized.
The potential difficulty with those biases is that if we’re totally unaware of them and we don’t condone them because we’re not even aware of them, then it’s really hard to address them. It’s really hard for us to consciously decrease our own bias if we’re completely unaware of it.
What I’m hoping is that we can get some kind of measure of the types of biases that I think might be very unconscious in people.
This, for example, might be people’s willingness to be open-minded about the other sides’ narratives about a conflict. We might have no idea how open-minded we are about the other sides’ views. We might think they were being open-minded when in fact we’re listening to them and developing our own counter arguments to what they’re saying automatically or we’re discounting what they’re saying out of hand.
What I’d really love to have is some kind of measure that approximates open-mindedness because this is something that’s just difficult or impossible to get at by asking people to self-report.
SK: Can your research look and say; we think unconscious biases are in this certain area of the brain? Are you there yet? Do you know where it is?
EB: No, we’re not there yet. I have some hints.
There is a brain region that keeps popping up in a number of different tasks that I’ve had people engage in, for example, reading the other sides’ narratives about the conflict that they find particularly ridiculous. This region that keeps popping out is a single region in the back middle of the brain called the medial precuneus.
This is an interesting region, but it’s also a very difficult one because it’s associated with many different processes, so it’s a rather promiscuous brain region, so we have to be able to tease apart what it’s actually doing in the context of trying to consider other people’s narratives.
SK: How about Theory of Mind; is that in a certain place in the brain?
EB: It is, yes. It’s just above and behind the right ear called the right temporoparietal junction. That is a discreet brain region. I’m always trying to look in there to see if I can see measureable differences between groups.
SK: You did research Dr. Bruneau on bias, prejudice, conflict. I’m curious; what tips can you give our listeners about peace-building?
EB: Well, my background in this research is inspired by experiences that I had personally and it was most directly inspired by a specific experience I had when I was younger. I volunteered at a conflict resolution camp in Ireland during the troubles.
My experience was that there was an incredible amount of goodwill. We had all these volunteers that wanted to bring together these Catholic and Protestant kids for reconciliation.
I actually visited a number of them in Belfast weeks later and it was a really positive experience.
They wanted to meet their new friends in a segregated neighborhood and this was actually quite dangerous at the time.
But what really characterized the experience for me was what happened a couple of weeks before meeting those kids and that was that a fight broke out between two of the boys and it immediately split the group down partisan lines and there was a full scale 150 child brawl.
My concern is that we have some wonderful intentions and we have really great intuitions about what will work, what types of interventions we can run that will decrease inner group hostility, but that doesn’t guarantee success. I don’t think goodwill and a great idea means that it will be effective.
Part of this might be because of these unconscious biases. We’re not even aware of the unconscious biases that we bring as practitioners to this practice.
What I’ve thought about almost every day when I’ve been a researcher now is back to that experience. I think back to my early 20s self; ready to go to a conflict resolution program and I want to make the research now relevant to that kid; what would I want to know then that I know now?
I think a lot of it just has to do with the humility of realizing that there is a lot going on in our brains that we’re completely unaware of, but that is still driving our behavior.
Humility is one; realizing that this is the case and that goodwill and intuition are not enough.
I think that demands a couple of different things. Number one; it demands that we actually verify that our good intuitions are having the effect we desire. It demands that we try to evaluate what effects the programs that we’re implementing are having.
It also demands that you try to address these potentially unconscious biases in yourself and I think that the good news is that, even though we have a lot of implicit biases, you can bring them to the front. You can become aware of these biases and at least in some cases, you can actually inoculate yourself against experiencing them. I think that is the most exciting reality of neuroscience; the fact that we have all these unconscious processes, but we can gain control over them.
That would be my advice to my younger self; make sure that you’re very careful about your assumptions. You could have things going on in your brain that are driving your behavior that you’re completely unaware of. Make sure that you try to address those by bringing them into conscious awareness and make sure that you don’t just assume that your goodwill will have a positive outcome, that you assess everything that you’re doing.
SK: It’s really hard though to be aware of your biases because we always think (isn’t that part of the brain too) that we’re right and they’re wrong?
EB: Again, I think it takes humility. Sometimes it’s very easy to become aware of these biases. In fact, there is one really strong psychological process called “Stereotype Threat,” and this phenomenon is really pervasive and it’s incredible and it’s been demonstrated in so many different ways. The idea is that if you’re at the losing end of a stereotype, that affects how you behave in that situation.
They’ve tested this in a mixed class of college students; the stereotype that women are not as good at math as men. If they tell them beforehand that these math problems – how you do on this is diagnostic of your natural mathematical ability, then the men outscore the women on that test. But if they take an identical room, again men and women and give them the same exact test, but this time they say, “These are just a series of games,” the groups perform equally. They perform equally because the women do much better. They rise up to the men’s scores.
The explanation for this is that in the first case, women are aware of the stereotype that they’re not as good at this task as men and the awareness itself, the stereotype itself impinges on their ability to perform and so they perform less well.
This has been demonstrated in crazy situations.
If you take black and white athletes and you have them do a little mini golf task and if you preface the task by saying, “This is a test of your natural athletic ability,” then the black athletes outperform the white athletes. But if you precede the same task by saying, “This is a task that assesses your ability to make critical judgement in athletic situations,” then the white athletes actually outperformed the black athletes.
If you take Asian women and you’re prime their Asian identity and you give them a difficult test, they outperform white men and if you instead prime their identity as women, then the white men outperform them.
It’s a really strong and pervasive effect, but there is the point that illustrates how fragile it is if you just teach people about stereotype threat like I just did here in the last couple of minutes. It inoculates them against experiencing it. Just the mere awareness of a psychological process can completely eliminate its effect over you and we don’t know how many of the processes are subject to this, but some of them it seems it might be as simple as that; that if you become aware of it, you might no longer be subject to it.
SK: Well, continue with that, with the stereotype threat and create an example for us of peacemaking. Let’s say there are two groups who are conflicting. You’re saying we can be inoculated, we can be aware, but maybe we’re not aware.
EB: That’s an example of the potential. That is one specific bias, stereotype threat that has been demonstrated to be subject to change, just by becoming aware of it. We don’t know how many of these unconscious biases that people hold are subject to the same inoculation.
For example, we have a tendency to uncritically accept information that already supports the view that we hold in the context of conflict to uncritically accept information that supports the view we already hold, but to hyper scrutinize information that supports the other side. This is something called “confirmation bias.”
I don’t know yet whether teaching people about confirmation bias can actually help them rise above it, but this is one of the things that I think we need to figure out. This is why I’m here; to do this research. I want to know if this is the case.
I want to know which biases are really driving conflict in real conflict situations, not just college students in a lab. Then I want to know which of these I can surmount and I can get the people to surmount by making people aware of it. If it’s not able to be surmountable by making them aware of it, are there other approaches that we can take that can help people surmount these biases that are getting in the way of conflict resolution?
SK: Dr. Emile Bruneau, it makes me think about the unconscious behavior of non-violence. For some people it’s conscious, for other people it’s unconscious. I’m wondering if we can somehow encourage people to be non-violent. Could that be fostered as a behavior?
EB: Well, we have an incredible amount of research on the unconscious effects of viewing violence and aggression. When kids view a lot of violence or engage in a lot of virtual violence like through video games, they tend to act more violently and they might be completely unaware that they’re being influenced in this way, but you can show that they are.
What we don’t have are numerous examples in our media of people coming up with creative, non-violent solutions to moments of conflict. Maybe on Sesame Street, but outside of that, it just doesn’t happen. It’s not part of our culture. I wonder what would happen if it was; if we were constantly exposed to creative non-violent solutions, might we then spontaneously, unconsciously come up with our own non-violent solutions when we come to times of conflict? I think that’s entirely possible. It’s sometimes understandable and sometimes disheartening that we don’t have all these examples out there. I would be really curious to see if this is true.
I think that in general, non-violent movements are incredible conscious. They are an attempt to get beyond our automatic responses. We know that humans are incredibly responsive automatically to fear. Even if you get someone to think of their own mortality, it changes how they view other groups. They tend to think now more in terms of “us” and “them.” They tend to obey authority more. They tend to be more xenophobic. Again, this can be a completely unconscious process.
We know that we have processes inside of us that respond automatically to violent scenarios, to threatening scenarios. I don’t think we have any knowledge of processes that automatically respond to non-violence, but again, that’s why I’m really interested to see if we could give some people some automatic intuitive unconscious processes that are informed more by non-violence than by violence.