by Guy Burgess
February 3, 2022
Over the last several weeks, we have had an opportunity to spend a fair amount of time reflecting on the new insights that neuroscience is bringing to the conflict and peacebuilding fields. We first Zoomed into an Alliance for Peacebuilding event that looked at "Setting Standards for Peacebuilding Practice in the United States." We were then able to Zoom into a number of related sessions at this year's Alliance for Peacebuilding PeaceCon conference including, most notably, the presentation by Mari Fitzduff highlighting some of the key insights from her new book Our Brains at War: The Neuroscience of Conflict and Peacebuilding, which we also had a chance to read.
Let's start by stating the obvious, these new and more sophisticated and nuanced insights into the way that people actually think is a critically important contribution to the field. It does much to explain why conflict resolution and peacebuilding strategies solely based on rational, persuasive arguments are doomed to failure. It also provides a physiological validation of some of the field's longest-standing (and, too often, neglected) insights about the importance of treating one another with respect; working with, rather than trying to suppress, emotions; not trying to impose one's beliefs and values on others; and tolerating group differences. This work also sheds light on the critical relationship between networks of people who trust one another, and people’s perceptions regarding the nature of objective facts.
|The long history of human evolution has selected for various psychological traits (such as risk aversion and distrust of outsiders) because, over time, they have given the groups that possess them an evolutionary advantage.|
While the biological mechanics of how people think are fascinating, it's maybe not important that we all fully understand these complexities. The key idea is that the long history of human evolution has selected for these psychological traits because, over time, they have given the groups that possess them an evolutionary advantage. They enhance group cohesiveness and the ability of human communities to work together effectively—one of the human race's most extraordinary "superpowers."
The deeply ingrained nature of these traits also helps explain why we are starting to run into serious problems as our increasingly globalized and interconnected planet brings more and more dissimilar groups into closer and more competitive contact with one another. We are reaching the point where evolutionary strengths are turning into vulnerabilities that are contributing greatly to today's societal dysfunction and our increasingly destructive and dangerous political conflicts.
|While it is still important to maintain the group cohesion needed for effective functioning, there is also an increasing need for groups to be more tolerant of diversity and willing to coexist (and often cooperate with) people with competing identities and beliefs.|
While it is still important to maintain the group cohesion needed for effective functioning, there is also an increasing need for groups to be more tolerant of diversity and willing to coexist (and often cooperate with) people with competing identities and beliefs. In this regard, there seems to be a tendency for those on the left to take pride in their embrace of diversity, and to condemn the right's commitment to supposedly "less tolerant" Christian values and the group’s largely white racial composition.
I worry about the possibility that people will start to think that neuroscience is telling us that these right-leaning groups are somehow genetically inferior and more likely to lead us toward authoritarian dystopia, or that the left's embrace of diversity proves their genetic superiority. This kind of genetically-based behavioral prediction is getting precariously close to eugenics—something that must be visibly and unequivocally repudiated.
|The same group-centric neurobiological dynamics that encourage right-leading citizens to embrace strong leaders willing to defend group norms are also pushing the left toward comparably strong measures to demand allegiance to its group norms.|
The same group-centric neurobiological dynamics that encourage right-leading citizens to embrace strong leaders willing to defend group norms are also pushing the left toward comparably strong measures to demand allegiance to its group norms—as illustrated by the vehemence of cancel culture's orthodoxy-enforcement actions. The left is big on certain kinds of diversity--racial, gender, sexual orientation, religious, but is highly intolerant of the diversity of ideas, particularly if those ideas stray from what progressives see as "right-thinking."
That said, the new insights from neurobiology are extremely valuable in helping us facilitate small-group sessions in ways that are much more likely to transform views and lead us closer to genuine reconciliation. Mari's book highlights lots of ways in which we can put these neuroscience insights to practical use.
|We need to supplement the growing understanding of psychological processes with a complementary effort focusing on social complexity. We need to figure out how to influence group beliefs in ways that encourage constructive (and discourage destructive) behaviors.|
Our new, more sophisticated understanding of the psychological complexity of conflict behavior is also laying the groundwork for what we see as a second, similarly important revolution in the way we think about conflict. This is a complementary effort to focus on the social complexity we encounter when peacebuilding efforts leave the familiar confines of carefully facilitated small-group conversations.
As we now better understand, aggregate group beliefs play a critical role in guiding the beliefs and behavior of individuals. We now need to focus on strategies for influencing these aggregate group beliefs in ways that encourage constructive (and discourage destructive) behaviors. In doing this, we need to turn our attention to community-wide (and even, society-wide) communication and interaction processes. It is also clear that helpful adaptations are much more likely to be successful if they arise from within an identity group’s circle of trusted individuals and much less likely to succeed if they are being pushed by distrusted outsiders.
We need to recognize that, at this level, there are few meetings to facilitate. Instead, there is a "narrowcast," mass media environment (most notably cable TV) in which different news outlets use sophisticated tracking methods to cultivate audiences by catering to neuropsychological vulnerabilities like the confirmation bias, outgroup fears, and the desire to be protected from cognitive dissonance by telling audiences what they want to hear. Beyond this, we have social media platforms (like Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, and TikTok) that use complex algorithms to build audiences (and revenue) by, again, targeting our neuropsychological vulnerabilities. Propagandists and provocateurs are able to take this a step further by "target-casting" individuals with custom-tailored messages that, in turn, inflame the tensions that their divide-and-conquer-based strategy demands.
|We need to build on our new knowledge of neuropsychology and develop a radically different set of strategies designed to counter the many forces that are pushing our larger conversation to destructive extremes. We then need to take that understanding to develop new tools to address this social (and psychological) complexity so we can combat the many bad-faith actors who are now very successfully working to tear people and democracies apart across the world.|
Addressing these and a host of related problems will require us to build on our new knowledge of neuropsychology and develop a radically different set of strategies designed to counter the many forces that are pushing our larger conversation to destructive extremes. This is something that we, at Beyond Intractability have been trying to push for some time, though our work, at this point, is much less advanced than the work of the neuroscience field that Mari describes. We believe we (along with many others) need to pursue a much better understanding of social complexity, just as the neurosciences have provided an understanding of psychological complexity.
We then need to take that understanding to develop new tools to address this social (and psychological) complexity so we can combat the many bad-faith actors who are now very successfully working to tear people and democracies apart across the world. We started our Constructive Conflict Initiative (CCI) a couple of years ago to try to push this idea, and we will be trying to take this a step further this year, as we release our Constructive Conflict Guide which will lay out a blueprint of our ideas about how this might be done. We hope many others in ours and related fields will begin working in similar areas, together pursuing what we refer to as "massively parallel problem solving."
 A few years ago, right before we started the CCI, we developed the notion of "massively parallel peacebuilding." We've written an article about that, have a Frontiers Seminar Topic Area on that, have an MPP "Action List" and a several videos describing MPP. But we have now come to realize that notion is too narrow. Much work needs to be done to solve our many socio-economic and political problems that is not peacebuilding per se. So we are starting to apply the concept more broadly as
changing to term to "massively parallel problem solving." The idea, however, is the same—lots and lots of people, organizations, and governmental units working loosely in parallel toward the same goals—reversing or adapting to climate change; reducing income, wealth, and power inequality, reducing racial discrimination, improving access to health care and education, etc.