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Loyalty to groups helped humans survive. That instinct still shows up in conflicts

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Entrenched conflicts - they exist globally, as we see in the Middle East. Closer to home, Republicans and Democrats remain entrenched. Now, most of us do not stop to consider how brain science might be at play when we are at odds. But NPR's Yuki Noguchi reports understanding our impulses might also help resolve our differences.

YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: As social beings, humans are wired to forge strong social bonds. Loyalties to groups helped us survive. Neurologist Olga Klemesky (ph) at University of Vienna in Germany says, you see how social identity plays out on brain scans. Seeing a comrade in pain, a fellow member of one's group, will fire the empathic part of the brain.

OLGA KLEMESKY: My brain would simulate the suffering of the other person by reactivating how I feel when I'm feeling bad, right?

NOGUCHI: But let's say an adversary is the one experiencing pain, Klemesky says not only does the same region not light up...

KLEMESKY: We also sometimes see more activation related to schadenfreude or malicious joy.

NOGUCHI: That's not all. Conflict literally dampens our ability to feel love. Klemesky says couples who just argued have less activity in regions of the brain that sense attachment and fondness. Tim Phillips says the brain's natural impulses are critical to understanding conflict and its resolution. Phillips and his group, Beyond Conflict, help negotiate treaties in Northern Ireland and helped convene what became South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission following apartheid. Phillips is not a neuroscientist, but he says decades of peace-building made him appreciate how deeply our ability to navigate conflict is influenced by our evolutionary impulses.

TIM PHILLIPS: And unfortunately, when we ignore how our brains actually work, then we're increasingly finding ourselves in the situation we increasingly find ourselves in, which is that we're throwing bad approaches after bad approaches.

NOGUCHI: He says conflict worsens when we feel it threatens things we hold dearest, our social identity or our people. We dig in deeper, become less rational. When fanned or exploited, such sentiments can override our sense of morality, morph into hate and dehumanization, which make atrocities possible. Diffusing an escalating situation, therefore, first requires releasing a brain hijacked by defensive emotion. It means saying to your opponent, for example...

PHILLIPS: I understand how important this is to you. I understand this is core to your identity and your community, and I respect your sacred values. And there's a cognitive shift.

NOGUCHI: It shifts because it emotionally disarms them. Phillips says such statements can change history. He cites Nelson Mandela in 1990, emerging from 27 years of political imprisonment, to call South African President F.W. de Klerk - one of his captors - an honorable man.

PHILLIPS: And it had a huge impact. Nelson Mandela called me an honorable man. Without thinking about it rationally, he was probably deeply surprised. But Mandela just gave him a bridge.

NOGUCHI: The two men then worked to end apartheid. Phillips says a similar approach helped him repair a long-time friendship damaged by sharp political differences. Phillips offered an olive branch, voicing respect for his friend's viewpoint and how he'd arrived there. Within days, the friend returned. He said that statement prompt him to rethink his own hardline views.

PHILLIPS: He literally said, I felt like I could breathe in our relationship again, and I started to change my mind. And I didn't sell him on the details and the policy - no. It's emotional.

NOGUCHI: They might not agree, he says, but at least they can talk. Yuki Noguchi, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Yuki Noguchi
Yuki Noguchi is a correspondent on the Science Desk based out of NPR's headquarters in Washington, D.C. She started covering consumer health in the midst of the pandemic, reporting on everything from vaccination and racial inequities in access to health, to cancer care, obesity and mental health.