Ted Cruz’s Stone-Age Brain and Yours

Why “Collateral Damage” Elicits So Little Empathy Among Americans

Cross-posted with This is a classic case of cognitive dissonance. Our brain hates to feel torn between conflicting emotions. Instead it rationalizes doing what we want to do by discounting any feeling that gives rise to negative emotions, in this case, guilt. An extreme example of this was what happened when the Nazis decided to stigmatize Jews and later wipe them out. From the moment they began their ruthless anti-Semitic campaigns, they used hideous imagery to convince other Germans that Jews were not, like them, human at all, but little different than rats. It is, of course, far easier to kill someone, or to sit by while others do the same, if you dehumanize them first. Rather than feeling empathy for the downtrodden Jews, many Germans felt contempt and disgust, strong emotions that swamped whatever other feelings they might have had.

In a study a few years ago, researchers measured the activity in the brains of subjects looking at pictures of homeless people. The finding was shocking. Brain activity in the medial prefrontal cortex, the region of the brain where empathy is often registered, was significantly lower than normal. Put another way, the subjects in this experiment literally paid the homeless no (or at least less) mind.

This may sound cruel and uncaring, but as far as biology is concerned it makes sense. Our genes, as the biologist Richard Dawkins has taught us, are “selfish”; they are, that is, built to enhance their own replication, which is, in effect, their biological imperative. Caring for people who are low in status, particularly those who belong to another tribe, doesn’t serve this imperative. Indeed, it may interfere with it by diverting the attention —> Read More