Monday, June 28, 2010

Caveman theory

It all started with a post on Facebook. Come to think of it, quite a lot does these days. I'm going to redact the names of the parties to the FB exchange in question, to protect the innocent.

The root of the thread was an excerpt from a statement film celeb Colin Farrell made for Ireland's STAND UP! campaign against homophobic bullying of gay young people:
Intolerance is not genetically encoded - it is taught. It is learned at home. It is learned in the classrooms and it is learned anywhere else we gather as a group. [...]"

A response to this post began:
A couple of years ago I saw a billboard that read: 'Nobody is born a bigot.'"

And another response:
[...] a recent article in Time on empathy approaches the issue of what CAN be taught: 'Increasingly, neuroscientists, psychologists and educators believe that bullying and other kinds of violence can indeed be reduced by encouraging empathy at an early age. Over the past decade, research in empathy — the ability to put ourselves in another person's shoes — has suggested that it is key, if not the key, to all human social interaction and morality.'"

I chimed in at this point, to say I think that empathy is pretty much the whole ball of wax when it comes to "human social interaction and morality."

Life was grand. Everybody in my FaceWorld was getting along. Imagine my surprise, then, when the person who posted about the article in Time sent a private e-mail a month later, expressing a very different point of view:
Seems the caveman theory continues to be right, and that the quest for empathy may be harder to un-hardwire than might be hoped [...]." He included a link to a CNN article, titled "Skin color affects ability to empathize with pain."

So what's "caveman theory" you may wonder? It's plenty of things, I suppose, including four hip hop guys from Florida. But in the shorthand between my correspondent and me it's the assertion that civilization is a veneer, that people are really not much different now than they were when humans lived in caves and clubbed their dinner.

I'd been surprised, actually, to see this individual posting anything sympathetic about empathy in a socio-political context. I've read his view of humanity as Hobbesian for many years. When he and I talk about caveman theory, we usually take opposite positions. Ah, well, I thought when I received the follow-up email. CNN trumped Time, and my correspondent hasn't changed his stripes. I read the article. And that's where things got interesting.

I won't quote the whole piece -- why violate copyright law when it's easy enough to read it on CNN's site? -- but here are what I regard as the bits salient to today's musings:

Salient bit #1:
Humans are hardwired to feel another person's pain. But they may feel less innate empathy if the other person's skin color doesn't match their own, a new study suggests."

Okay, the opening salvo supports my correspondent's revived pessimism about humans and empathic behavior.

Salient bit #2:
In the study, which appears in the journal Current Biology, people of Italian and African descent watched short film clips that showed needles pricking black- and white-skinned hands. As they watched, researchers measured the participants' empathy (i.e., their nervous-system activity) by monitoring sensors attached to the same spot on their hands. They also tracked the participants' heart rates and sweat-gland activity, a common measure of emotional response. "White observers reacted more to the pain of white than black models, and black observers reacted more to the pain of black than white models," says the lead researcher, Alessio Avenanti, Ph.D., an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Bologna."

Hmmmm... Sounds like science to me. A whiff of Josef Mengele, perhaps, but science nonetheless. This may be real evidence. I can see why my correspondent might think this study is a game changer. But wait! Keep reading!

Salient bit #3:
The researchers also showed clips of a needle pricking a hand painted bright purple. Both the Italian and African participants were more likely to empathize with this intentionally strange-looking hand than with the hand of another race, which implies that the earlier lack of empathy was due to skin color, not just difference. 'This is quite important, because it suggests that humans tend to empathize by default unless prejudice is at play,' says Avenanti."

Stop the ding-dang presses, people. This story doesn't conflict with what Colin Farrell said. My correspondent got it absolutely wrong.

Without meaning any disrespect to Denise Mann, the author of this prose, I'd like to rejigger that second sentence of Salient bit #3, because I think she may have led my correspondent astray. Here, let's try inserting four little words (I've underlined them):
Both the Italian and African participants were more likely to empathize with this intentionally strange-looking hand than with the hand of another race, which implies that the earlier lack of empathy was due to skin color associated with learned racism, not just difference.

Did my correspondent stop reading the article before he got to the purple hand paragraph? Did he fail to see what that paragraph really meant, despite the researcher's direct quote, because the preceding sentence was written less-than-well? Or was he not-so-interested in examining the article critically because it seemed on the surface to support a set of beliefs he tends toward in any case?

Well, I don't know. He's pretty busy, I do know that. He's smart, analytical, and articulate too. So I'll venture some guesses: maybe, maybe, and probably. Maybe he only read part of the article, maybe he slipped in the muddy prose, and he probably wasn't inclined to see challenge in an article whose headline suggested support for his point-of-view.

The reason I venture that set of answers is because of another theory I'd like to propose for your consideration. Let's call it "I knew it!" theory, which I'll abbreviate as "iki!" because, well ... because this is my blog post and I can. By "iki!" theory I mean to suggest that people like to read or watch news stories that support the views they already hold, news that 'proves' their perspective is right. Here's a study that came out of Ohio State University about a year ago that supports the "iki!" theory (I'll only quote the first paragraph, but I read through to the end, really, I did):
News readers gorge on media messages that fit their pre-existing views, rather than graze on a wider range of perspectives. In other words, they consume what they agree with, researchers say.

Coincidentally, on the day my correspondent sent me a link to the article on CNN, a member of my writing group commented on a One Finger Typing post, Right-wing cultural relativism. Steven's comment lines up nicely with the "iki!" theory:
I think that many people struggle with the ability to contain multiple ideas in their heads that are at first glance contradictory, but really just slightly more complex. [...] There's a great article on Slate I can't find right now, about how people reject scientific thought and the different ways they do that. Challenging your beliefs is difficult, it's easier (and more affirming) to find sources that support you and the idea that your truth IS truth. [...]"

(I freely concede, by the way, that the "iki!" theory itself isn't news. Consider, for example, that Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel sang it forty years ago, in Simon's song The Boxer: "All lies and jest / Still, a man hears what he wants to hear / And disregards the rest....")

I'm guessing my correspondent's misreading was the unconscious product of being in a hurry and an altogether human tendency to see what one expects or wants to.

Caveman theory still looks pretty specious to me.

1 comment:

  1. I agree with you about empathy, and I do think that we can be taught how to empathize - it's natural. Unluckily, it's also natural for us to distrust anything "other" and see the universe in terms of ourselves (ego). I think it's a push and pull. One one side: MLK, Mother Theresa, etcetera. On the other: Snookie, or maybe the guy who punched Snookie in the face. At any rate, there's good reason to teach people to be empathetic, and discourage them from being the other way, i.e. assholes.

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