Neurobiology, Social influence and its impact on our capacity to empathize.
Today’s post shows Carine Nijenhuis’ reflection on the human (dis)ability to show empathy towards the religious unknown. An exploration of our lack of empathy from a neurological point of view sheds a completely different light on this cultural phenomenon.
Three years ago in June 2010, the first protest was held against the building of a 15-story Mosque on the location where the Twin Towers once stood. Thousands of people opposed what they called “the manifestation of a radically intolerant belief system that is incompatible with the freedoms guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, and an insult to the Americans who were murdered [on 9/11]. That many Muslim Americans were killed in the 9/11 attacks as well, seems to be a fact that is completely disregarded by some. Instead, the fact that the terrorist attacks were executed by Muslims seems to be enough justification to distrust the religion altogether. Similar antagonism to the building of mosques has also been witnessed in Europe, most recently in Athens, but also in Switzerland, Austria, Germany, and the Netherlands.
As a student of religion, I couldn’t help noticing that most people show some kind of allergic reaction to the word itself and towards all of its connotations. We tend to let our sense of humanity be clouded by our perceived (and highly subjective) image of someone’s religion. What is it that makes us act differently towards people who have another religion than we have ourselves; that is, if we even consider ourselves to be religious in the first place? Why does showing some understanding and empathy towards people whose religion and beliefs are different from our own seem to be so hard for us?
What has happened to the human capability of showing empathy? Of understanding each other’s position and above all respecting it? More specifically, where does this lack of empathy come from?
I believe the answer can be found in a combination of neurobiology, social influence, and the increased stresses of our daily lives. As I was thinking about what could have caused empathy-lacking stances towards the Muslim victims of 9/11, some recent research caught my attention; James L. Griffith’s study combines a variety of disciplines in trying to understand empathy: neurobiology and social influence. According to Griffith, in his book Religion that Heals, Religion that Harms, “the workings of sociobiological religion and personal spirituality extend beyond the interpersonal sphere into the physical brains of individuals.“ By looking into how specific brain behavioral circuits influence or are influenced by psychological states and social behaviors, Griffith states that we should be able to understand the interaction between brain physiology and (religious) individuals better.
Therefore, a short exploration of neurobiology can give us a head start in understanding where empathy “starts” in our brain, going all the way back to the 1980s. In this decade, mirror neurons were discovered in the frontal lobe of the brain, indicating that the brain could not only be activated by one’s own pain, but also when another person’s pain was being witnessed; the first step towards compassion. The discovery of mirror neurons led to a hypothesis called “theory-of-mind,” or mentalization. This hypothesis proposed that a person could be able to simulate someone else’s thoughts, feelings, and intentions by simulating and comparing it with their own thoughts; in other words, the capacity to stand in someone else’s shoes. This seems to be an advantage exclusive to Homo Sapiens… yet one which we seem to override quite a lot. Why?
The so-called problem with our mentalizing capacity is that it can be disrupted via social influence. An individual with a normal functioning brain may still fail to show empathy when social cues disrupt activation of the empathy system. According to Griffith, terror, horror, helplessness, humiliation, and particularly stress are common precipitants for the sequenced shutting down of brain capacities for empathy, compassion, reflection, or dialogue. That is, as Griffith states, while the neural pathways in our brain are “evolutionarily engineered and their steps hardwired,” the switches that send information down one path (empathy) or another (suppressed empathy) are governed by our beliefs, appraisals, social cues, and other psychological processes (Griffith, 2010, 52). And alongside media, where else do we find a major input into our beliefs than from the group we think we belong to?
In-group beliefs are one of the most important influences on our capability to activate feelings of empathy via our pain-system. The influence of cues can sometimes even be so great that they prevent the activation of the pain-system of the brain and activate a reward system instead. For example, an encounter with someone you distrust or compete with can cause activation of a reward system, enabling the individual to feel satisfaction when the distrusted person gets punished. This is exactly what made some of us feel some sense of pride when America’s Chief Administrator in Iraq Paul Bremer announced that “Ladies and Gentlemen, we got [Saddam Hussein]!” on the eight o’clock news. Therefore, our perception of otherness still serves as a signal for a potential threat instead of being an opening to curiosity, respect, and fascination.
These responses to otherness can be selectively regulated by our brain, and is specifically influenced by social pressures; that is, via appraisals of the in-group perspectives. Social emotions such as embarrassment, pride, shame, and guilt can influence our brain to “switch-off” empathic responses towards others by diverting mirror neuron information away from the brain. Moreover, according to Griffith, when social dominance or kin recognition come into the picture, empathy can be suppressed for entire classes of people, as with stereotyping, discrimination, and stigmatization of certain groups .
Are we really letting our capacity to mentalize and to show empathy be led by social cues? Let’s consider a few simple examples. When one person stares at some point in the sky, more will follow his line of sight. If all raise their hand in voting, you are also inclined to raise yours. When one person says “no,” more will say “no” after him—just as the Asch-experiment proves. But most of all, don’t we all tend to follow the majority, particularly when we have no time to carefully sort through large amounts of information in order to make our own decision?
Consequently, as an explanation of why we let our lives be influenced by the social, we should also explore our daily—and above all hectic—life. That is, we are constantly stimulated from all sides to participate in society; bring the kids to school, reply to emails, write text messages, cook dinner, make phone calls, watch movies, buy clothes, etcetera. Few can nowadays escape the 24/7 entertainment, with neon-advertisements flashing day and night and tell-sell programs which are broadcast even at three in the morning. The internet causes everyone to be able to access worldwide knowledge at all times, and smart phones are left on stand-by on the nightstand. Above all, contemporary stresses concerning money and having a democratic voice disrupts our sense of agency; who did what to whom; who is responsible; and who should take the blame. These daily stresses make us more sensitive to bottom-up processing of information we receive; physical, emotional, or unexpected perceptions of experiences could result in the brain modulating the intensity of the felt experience into something highly exaggerated. For example, when you are emotionally exhausted, the news of an individual migrant getting a job could be translated in your mind as a discourse that all migrants take our jobs. In this sense, your mind does not temporarily have the ability to process the information via a central route—hereby carefully assessing multiple aspects—but takes a peripheral route. That is, we let our judgment be influenced by our social environment and sometimes amplify the outcomes; our attitude towards the issue or object changes according to the negative or positive connotations it is associated with.
Combined with the increased daily stresses of life, I believe we are more vulnerable to social influence and therefore more inclined to let our empathy-decisions be influenced by the person next door. Our hectic social life obliges us to take short-cuts, and group guidance usually is the easiest and in most cases reliable path to take. Moreover, the stress our daily social interactions bring about can severely influence our perception of the intensity of the problem we find in our path. Additionally, it seems as if our dominant in-group perception of otherness blocks our individual capacity to mentalize and show empathy towards that which we do not know or understand.
In a way, it becomes clear to me that we look more like mammals than we’d like to believe; following the herd is the easiest way to live life, but could potentially be the most ignorant.
Carine Nijenhuis is a Master student Religion, Conflict, and Globalisation at the Faculty for Theology and Religious Studies. She holds a Bachelor degree in American Studies at the Faculty of Arts, within which she specifically focused on psychology, consumerism, and International- and European law. Her research mainly focuses on conflicts concerning the United States, Canada, and Mexico. Of particular research interest are human rights violations, global politics and law-making in the international sphere, psychological processes and social influence, and popular religion and commercialization.
 Robert Spencer, “5,000 free people stand for freedom against the 9/11 mega-mosque at Ground Zero,” Jihad Watch (2010) http://www.jihadwatch.org/2010/06/5000-free-people-stand-for-freedom-against-the-911-mega-mosque-at-ground-zero.html (accessed June 20, 2013).
 Aljazeera, “Protests held against Athens Mosque Plan,” May 27, 2013, http://www.aljazeera.com/news/europe/2013/05/2013526234115105760.html (accessed June 20, 2013).
 Ian Traynor, “The Rise of Mosques becomes Catalyst for conflict across Europe,” The Guardian, October 11, 2007 http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2007/oct/11/thefarright.religion (accessed June 20, 2013).
 James L. Griffith, Religion that Heals, Religion that Harms: A Guide for Clinical Practice (Guilford Press: New York, 2010.
 Max Brockbank, “Ladies and Gentlemen, We Got Him,” Time Online, December 14, 2003 http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,561438,00.html (accessed June 20, 2013).
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 James L. Griffith, Religion that Heals, Religion that Harms: A Guide for Clinical Practice.
 S.E. Asch, “Effects of group pressure on the modification and distortion of judgments,” in H. Guetzkow (Ed.), Groups, Leadership and Men (Pittsburgh, PA: Carnegie Press, 1951).
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 Robert B. Cialdini, Influence: Science and Practice, 2009.