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Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Attacking The Roots of Violence–The Pentagon’s ‘Like Me’ Weapon

The BBC has reported that the United States military has shown through neurological research that the recitation of positive narratives can generate oxytocin in the brain – the chemical known colloquially as the ‘love hormone’ which can reduce or eliminate levels of hostility and anger towards others. This research can provide the foundation for new, highly-targeted public information campaigns http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20120501-building-the-like-me-weapon/1:

US officials [are working on] a device that could advise them what to say, generating a story based on a scientific understanding of the brain’s inner workings to soothe tempers and calm the mood of the population. It sounds like something from a science fiction blockbuster, but is in fact the premise behind the Pentagon’s growing interest in the neurobiology of political violence, a relatively new field that combines neuroscience with more traditional social science-based approaches to understanding human behavior.

One program, started last year by the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa), even looks at finding ways to generate versions of events that could be used in attempts to persuade people not to support the enemy. Known as Narrative Networks, it seeks to "understand how narratives influence human thoughts and behavior, then apply those findings to a security context in order to address security challenges such as radicalization, violent social mobilization, insurgency and terrorism, and conflict prevention and resolution,” says William Casebeer, the Darpa official leading the work.

Zak’s work involves trying to understand how listening to stories affects the brain’s natural release of oxytocin, sometimes called the trust hormone. “Why are we grabbed by some stories and not others?’ he says. “It just seems like a great question to ask.”

The research has been done by exposing volunteers to a variety of different narratives, all related to contentious issues around which hate and violence have often been associated, then measuring brain function:

Participants were placed in a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner while statements based on answers they had previously given on a questionnaire were presented on a screen. Topics related to either core beliefs such as views on gay marriage, sex with children and the sterilization of people with genetic conditions, or less fundamental matters such as preference for PCs or Macs.

[Researchers] found that fundamental values, such as those concerning sex and belief in God, triggered activity in a part of the brain called the left temporoparietal junction, while more every-day belief statements stimulated activity in the entirely separate left and right inferior parietal lobes.

These findings, [they] suggest, means there is a biological basis for ethnic conflict. “Many of the conflicts that we currently face internationally are ultimately about control of biology”.

People may say they are fighting for ideas, but what they are really fighting for is for values connected to survival, such as reproductive rights. “Things like religion are placeholders for that; what we’re seeing is a very Darwinian struggle for limited resources,” researchers conclude.

This conclusion represents a bit of a leap of faith – from finding the locus of deeply-held beliefs to assuming that they are related to survival of the fittest – but it is at least an interesting lens through which to view social disharmony.  Animosity towards gays, for example, or a strongly anti-abortion stance might be stand-ins for very fundamental reproductive rights, i.e. propagation of the species.  The more practical implication is that if the seat of deeply-held beliefs can be located, and if positive narratives can affect them, behavior change is possible.

In a study published last year, researchers looked at what happens in the brain when Jewish Israelis and Arabs read stories intended to evoke sympathy about members of each other's group. Participants read about children suffering physical or emotional pain such as by cutting themselves with a knife or losing a parent, for example. Brain scans carried out with fMRI machines showed these stories elicited similar patterns of activation in the medial prefrontal cortex, the brain region associated with sympathy, whether subjects read about members of their own group or about "the enemy".

The US government currently spends billions of dollars in foreign propaganda.  The Voice of America is still alive and well as the principal organ for disseminating information designed to promote positive views of the United States.  This research might point the way to more behavioral messages – that is, rather than simply promoting highly generic, feel-good programs about the US, they should focus on changing behavior, in this case through the positive narratives suggested above.  However, one critic comments:

“We need to understand those things, no doubt about it, but, in terms of promoting peace I’m not sure that knowing where in the brain the anger that leads to violence is happening is going to help us discourage war,” says Pyszczynski, who has been studying the effects of the recent Arab Spring uprisings on attitudes towards the West. “We’re not going to be able to go in and zap people’s amygdalae or anesthetize them or do whatever,” he says. “We’re going to need to change the way they interpret things that happen and we’re going to need to stop doing things that people interpret as insulting or challenging to their way of life.”\

In short, although the research has been promising in demonstrating positive neurological effects (sympathy) through narratives, the design of effective behavior change programs will be a daunting challenge.  It is hard enough to come up with advertising campaigns to effect fractional changes in market share for toothpaste, let alone to modify hard-held core beliefs.

Pyszczynski has another concern:

The potential for such work also raises an interesting ethical question reminiscent of the issues addressed A Clockwork Orange, both the 1971 film and the book on which it was based. “If you could somehow reliably change peoples’ minds so that they didn’t want to kill anymore, should that be done?” he asks. “Well, you’re impinging on their freedom in a way, but on the other hand you’re saving a lot of lives.”

This concern is a bit disingenuous.  Propaganda machinery has been in existed for years and has been fine-tuned in American commercial and social advertising.  Public health officials have tried with varying degrees of success to change negative behavior, such as smoking.  Although these campaigns have not been based on the sophisticated neurological functions suggested in this article, they have hit upon the issue of core beliefs.  Perhaps the most noteworthy and the most successful was a recent Florida campaign to reduce teenage smoking.  After years of focusing unsuccessfully on death and disease, bad teeth and breath, and reeking clothing, the Florida programmers finally found a solution.  They would focus on teenagers’ deeply held belief that capitalism was a venal and corrosive enterprise, and that every dollar spent on cigarettes would be a dollar in the pockets of fat-cat monopolists.  The campaign, despite the hysteric opposition of tobacco companies who saw for the first time a real threat – a campaign attacking their own core values – was a big success.

Other research is more familiar and mechanical, for example to develop sophisticated predictive models for violent behavior:

Another Pentagon initiative, called Minerva, conducts scientific research on the role of emotions in inciting political violence. Researchers are studying language and facial expressions used by political leaders to see if those can be used to predict future violence. 

“I think that one of the most logical direct applications of this kind of finding and this line of research [is] to develop sensors that can watch, either monitor the words that are being spoken and/or the non-verbal behaviors that are expressive of those emotions,” [the senior researcher] says of the Pentagon’s interest in his work. “I think the development of sensors like that ... would be sort of an early warning signal or system [to detect violence].”

This is being done already by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) which is combining face-recognition software and predictive psychological modeling to determine who is likely to be up to no good.

Montague points out that people also once doubted that a computer could beat a chess master, but as technology advanced, computers eventually became good enough that they could out manoeuvre even the best chess players. Of course, the idea of Big Blue-style computer that taps the mind’s biology to generate stories sounds less like a feel-good storytelling machine than a military weapon designed to manipulate people’s mental state. “It’s a weapon,” says Montague, “but it’s a defensive weapon.”

Let’s wait and see.

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