Bio-Socio/Anthropo English
Political Divisiveness Attributable to Social Empathy or Lack Thereof
2017-11-21 00:00:00
Cedric Dent

There is a burgeoning field of study now that focuses on the intersectionality of biology and politics. Its express intent is to gain biological insight into what inclines people to certain political viewpoints among many other things, so a relatively new paper was published in October by a research team at University of California, Merced, and it addressed physiological factors that it claimed could be used to predict how a person would react to being presented with any of a myriad of political scenarios. The intersection of biology and politics is also informed by the long-established study of the social behaviors of animals, and four independent studies broke ground in that regard with publications on November 13.

These bio-sociological and even bio-anthropological analyses of the motivations behind people’s behaviors, using virtually all mammals as reference points for observable, neurological stimulus-reaction correlations, have been extended to the point of elucidating fundamental gender issues in the venture capital sector. University of Chicago Neurobiology Professor Peggy Mason formed this argument based on the unique tests she and her team conducted on lab rats, tests that she claims yielded the discovery of empathy in rodents.

Being able to scientifically represent empathy is an impeccably significant achievement that could prospectively hold unbridled potential for future advancements in psychotherapy or neurobiology. At the very least, it would redefine the human understanding of its own mind, and one of the most constructive uses for this line of thinking is to create empathy among politically divided people according to Chelsea Coe, U.C. Merced graduate student and lead author on the study into the physiological factors that could be used to predict how people will react to particular political contexts.

“We all have that fight-or-flight response to stress, which can include feeling panicky, sweaty and/or an increased heart rate,” Coe explains, alluding to the machine her team used to measure participants’ baseline physiological reactions to various images shown to them in series. That baseline is a metric obtained directly from a person’s skin conductance, which measurably changes in response to various stimuli. Clips on the fingertips of the participants measured this by taking what comes directly through their sweat glands. “And the extent of this response is different for each person. We see it as another individual trait that makes you and me different people.”

Coe and her team showed people images but also asked leading questions, all to simulate certain contexts for the participants’ minds to ponder and to which they would biologically respond to varying degrees. Questions, therefore, probed them about immigration, gay marriage, gun control, abortion and a plethora of controversial topics. One scenario of note was a KKK rally and the prospect of it coming to Merced; participants were asked whether or not such a rally should be allowed. When it was framed as a free-speech narrative, people were in favor of allowing the rally, but when the scenario was posed as a public safety hazard, they typically advocated barring the demonstration.

“People with a low tolerance for confrontation are not likely to favor it no matter how it is framed,” Coe explained. She referenced students who were presented with the same scenario in 1997 at Ohio State, and the contextual framing of the issue — how it was presented to them — swayed their opinions similarly. The revelation, though, was that the team also illustrated that people physiologically predisposed toward higher sensitivity to threats are more likely, in general, to side with the safety concerns in contexts like that of the prospective KKK rally.

“People are persuaded by different pieces of information,” Coe expounded. “But what this tells us is that you can be persuaded by some things more than others because of your physiology.” Add that to the facts that social aggression was found to be intimately linked to the brain’s memory region, that biological evidence suggests two minds can genuinely share a wavelength and that cooperation is typically more motivated by self-interest than by empathy, and you begin to outline a more detailed picture of what’s happening in a lot of the political debates that break down between friends, colleagues, or family.

“We’re beginning to see a striking aspect of the brain […] that brains are wired for social interactions,” according to University of Texas neuroscience and psychiatry professor, Dr. Robert Green of the Southwestern Medical Center. He gave the statement at a news conference held regarding the four independent studies presented at the annual Society for Neuroscience summit on November 13. These studies mark the first instance in history wherein evidence directly supports the long-maintained hypothesis that underlying brain infrastructure facilitates facets of social behavior.

One of the four studies was conducted by a group at Columbia University in New York, and it focused on social aggression as aggression toward a member of one’s own species (to distinguish it from aggression aimed toward prey, which has a clear and distinct motivation). They concluded the hippocampus — the memory center -- drives this kind of aggression in mice. “The second that aggression started is when [nerve signals on the hippocampus] turned on really strongly,” according to Columbia University neuroscience research associate Félix Leroy who spearheaded the study. “We’re now trying to look at the exact relay of signals in these brain regions to confirm that this burst of activity precedes aggression.”

Peggy Mason demonstrated both empathy and racism — a form of social aggression — in her lab rats. She established a scenario in which one rat was confined in an obvious trap that could only be opened from the outside while a second rat was free to roam outside said trap. These rats had been through many experimental challenges together and learned skills together, so they were familiar with one another. Both rats were white. Rats, in general, hate occupying open spaces; it defies their natural inclinations because they equate open spaces with exposure to predators. In lieu of this, the free rat risked all to save the trapped rat.

When the experiment was replicated with another white rat in the trap, one whom the free rat had never met, the end result was still the same. Mason illustrated that the empathy went deep enough to save a complete stranger. A third trial was conducted with a genetically distinct, black rat in the trap, however, and the free, white rat would not do the same. The study was published in Frontiers in Psychology as well as eLife and Science.

Chicago Booth Review writer, Waverly Deutsch, points out that Peggy Mason’s studies illustrate the social significance of familiarity. It could very well be the entirety of the disagreement between two politically divided parties unbeknownst to them, and Deutsch argues that it is especially crucial in venture capital. Female founders are notoriously overlooked for VC funding, and it begs the question: are female founders the trapped, black rat in this scenario?

US politics is viewed by many Americans on all sides now as having reached its zenith, and what people unconsciously perceive as a threat (and don’t) may very well inform how often and with whom they empathize. Police have been castigated for gunning down unarmed African Americans for generations, and part of the discussion is the prospect that non-Blacks, influenced by a culture that has historically criminalized the Black image, feel a greater threat in (and, thus, less empathy for) Blacks, which makes them quicker to think they are in danger when they aren’t and their empathizers proportionally quicker to defend their actions and castigate the Black Lives Matter Movement — the convoluted essence of bioanthropological aggression.

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