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← How do daily habits lead to political violence?

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Showing Revision 7 created 09/03/2020 by Erin Gregory.

  1. So I'm starting us out today
    with a historical mystery.
  2. In 1957, there were two young women,
  3. both in their 20s,
  4. both living in the same city,
  5. both members of the same political group.
  6. That year, both decided
    to commit violent attacks.
  7. One girl took a gun and approached
    a soldier at a checkpoint.
  8. The other girl took a bomb
    and went to a crowded café.
  9. But here's the thing:
  10. one of the those girls
    followed through with the attack,
  11. but the other turned back.
  12. So what made the difference?
  13. I'm a behavioral historian,
    and I study aggression,

  14. moral cognition
  15. and decision-making in social movements.
  16. That's a mouthful. (Laughs)
  17. So, the translation of that is:
  18. I study the moment an individual
    decides to pull the trigger,
  19. the day-to-day decisions
    that led up to that moment
  20. and the stories that they tell themselves
    about why that behavior is justified.
  21. Now, this topic --

  22. it's not just scholarly for me.
  23. It's actually a bit personal.
  24. I grew up in Kootenai County, Idaho,
  25. and this is very important.
  26. This is not the part of Idaho
    with potatoes.
  27. We have no potatoes.
  28. And if you ask me about potatoes,
  29. I will find you.
  30. (Laughter)

  31. This part of Idaho is known
    for mountain lakes,

  32. horseback riding,
  33. skiing.
  34. Unfortunately, starting in the 1980s,
  35. it also became known
    as the worldwide headquarters
  36. for the Aryan Nations.
  37. Every year, members of the local
    neo-Nazi compound
  38. would turn out and march through our town,
  39. and every year,
  40. members of our town
    would turn out and protest them.
  41. Now, in 2001, I graduated
    from high school,

  42. and I went to college in New York City.
  43. I arrived in August 2001.
  44. As many of you probably are aware,
  45. three weeks later,
  46. the Twin Towers went down.
  47. Now, I was shocked.

  48. I was incredibly angry.
  49. I wanted to do something,
  50. but the only thing that I could think
    of doing at that time
  51. was to study Arabic.
  52. I will admit,

  53. I was that girl in class
    that wanted to know why "they" hate "us."
  54. I started studying Arabic
    for very wrong reasons.
  55. But something unexpected happened.
  56. I got a scholarship to go study in Israel.
  57. So the Idaho girl went to the Middle East.
  58. And while I was there,
    I met Palestinian Muslims,
  59. Palestinian Christians,
  60. Israeli settlers,
  61. Israeli peace activists.
  62. And what I learned
    is that every act has an ecology.
  63. It has a context.
  64. Now, since then, I have gone
    around the world,

  65. I have studied violent movements,
  66. I have worked with NGOs
    and ex-combatants in Iraq,
  67. Syria,
  68. Vietnam,
  69. the Balkans,
  70. Cuba.
  71. I earned my PhD in History,
  72. and now what I do is
    I go to different archives
  73. and I dig through documents,
  74. looking for police confessions,
  75. court cases,
  76. diaries and manifestos of individuals
    involved in violent attacks.
  77. Now, you gather all these documents --
  78. what do they tell you?
  79. Our brains love causal mysteries,

  80. it turns out.
  81. So any time we see an attack on the news,
  82. we tend to ask one question:
  83. Why?
  84. Why did that happen?
  85. Well, I can tell you I've read
    thousands of manifestos,
  86. and what you find out is
    that they are actually imitative.
  87. They imitate the political movement
    that they're drawing from.
  88. So they actually don't tell us
    a lot about decision-making
  89. in that particular case.
  90. So we have to teach ourselves
    to ask a totally different question.
  91. Instead of "Why?" we have to ask "How?"
  92. How did individuals produce these attacks,
  93. and how did their decision-making ecology
    contribute to violent behavior?
  94. There's a couple things I've learned
    from asking this kind of question.

  95. The most important thing is that
  96. political violence is not
    culturally endemic.
  97. We create it.
  98. And whether we realize it or not,
  99. our day-to-day habits contribute
    to the creation of violence
  100. in our environment.
  101. So here's a couple of habits
    that I've learned contribute to violence.

  102. One of the first things that attackers did
  103. when preparing themselves
    for a violent event
  104. was they enclosed themselves
    in an information bubble.
  105. We've heard of fake news, yeah?
  106. Well, this shocked me:
  107. every group that I studied
    had some kind of a fake news slogan.
  108. French communists
    called it the "putrid press."
  109. French ultranationalists called it
    the "sellout press"
  110. and the "treasonous press."
  111. Islamists in Egypt called it
    the "depraved news."
  112. And Egyptian communists called it ...
  113. "fake news."
  114. So why do groups spend all this time
    trying to make these information bubbles?
  115. The answer is actually really simple.
  116. We make decisions based on
    the information we trust, yeah?
  117. So if we trust bad information,
  118. we're going to make bad decisions.
  119. Another interesting habit
    that individuals used

  120. when they wanted
    to produce a violent attack
  121. was that they looked at their victim
    not as an individual
  122. but just as a member of an opposing team.
  123. Now this gets really weird.
  124. There's some fun brain science behind
    why that kind of thinking is effective.
  125. Say I divide all of you guys
    into two teams:
  126. blue team,
  127. red team.
  128. And then I ask you to compete
    in a game against each other.
  129. Well, the funny thing is,
    within milliseconds,
  130. you will actually start experiencing
    pleasure -- pleasure --
  131. when something bad happens
    to members of the other team.
  132. The funny thing about that is
    if I ask one of you blue team members
  133. to go and join the red team,
  134. your brain recalibrates,
  135. and within milliseconds,
  136. you will now start experiencing pleasure
  137. when bad things happen
    to members of your old team.
  138. This is a really good example
    of why us-them thinking is so dangerous
  139. in our political environment.
  140. Another habit that attackers used
    to kind of rev themselves up for an attack

  141. was they focused on differences.
  142. In other words, they looked
    at their victims, and they thought,
  143. "I share nothing in common
    with that person.
  144. They are totally different than me."
  145. Again, this might sound
    like a really simple concept,
  146. but there's some fascinating science
    behind why this works.
  147. Say I show you guys videos
    of different-colored hands
  148. and sharp pins being driven
    into these different-colored hands,
  149. OK?
  150. If you're white,
  151. the chances are you will experience
    the most sympathetic activation,
  152. or the most pain,
  153. when you see a pin
    going into the white hand.
  154. If you are Latin American, Arab, Black,
  155. you will probably experience
    the most sympathetic activation
  156. watching a pin going into the hand
    that looks most like yours.
  157. The good news is,
    that's not biologically fixed.
  158. That is learned behavior.
  159. Which means the more we spend time
    with other ethnic communities
  160. and the more we see them as similar to us
    and part of our team,
  161. the more we feel their pain.
  162. The last habit
    that I'm going to talk about

  163. is when attackers prepared themselves
    to go out and do one of these events,
  164. they focused on certain emotional cues.
  165. For months, they geared themselves up
    by focusing on anger cues, for instance.
  166. I bring this up because
    it's really popular right now.
  167. If you read blogs or the news,
  168. you see talk of two concepts
    from laboratory science:
  169. amygdala hijacking
    and emotional hijacking.
  170. Now, amygdala hijacking:
  171. it's the concept that I show you
    a cue -- say, a gun --
  172. and your brain reacts
    with an automatic threat response
  173. to that cue.
  174. Emotional hijacking --
    it's a very similar concept.
  175. It's the idea that I show you
    an anger cue, for instance,
  176. and your brain will react
    with an automatic anger response
  177. to that cue.
  178. I think women usually get
    this more than men. (Laughs)
  179. (Laughter)

  180. That kind of a hijacking narrative
    grabs our attention.

  181. Just the word "hijacking"
    grabs our attention.
  182. The thing is,
  183. most of the time, that's not really
    how cues work in real life.
  184. If you study history,
  185. what you find is that we are bombarded
    with hundreds of thousands of cues
  186. every day.
  187. And so what we do is we learn to filter.
  188. We ignore some cues,
  189. we pay attention to other cues.
  190. For political violence,
    this becomes really important,

  191. because what it meant is that attackers
    usually didn't just see an anger cue
  192. and suddenly snap.
  193. Instead,
  194. politicians, social activists
    spent weeks, months, years
  195. flooding the environment
    with anger cues, for instance,
  196. and attackers,
  197. they paid attention to those cues,
  198. they trusted those cues,
  199. they focused on them,
  200. they even memorized those cues.
  201. All of this just really goes to show
    how important it is to study history.

  202. It's one thing to see how cues operate
    in a laboratory setting.
  203. And those laboratory experiments
    are incredibly important.
  204. They give us a lot of new data
    about how our bodies work.
  205. But it's also very important to see
    how those cues operate in real life.
  206. So what does all this tell us
    about political violence?

  207. Political violence is not
    culturally endemic.
  208. It is not an automatic, predetermined
    response to environmental stimuli.
  209. We produce it.
  210. Our everyday habits produce it.
  211. Let's go back, actually, to those two
    women that I mentioned at the start.

  212. The first woman had been paying attention
    to those outrage campaigns,
  213. so she took a gun
  214. and approached a soldier at a checkpoint.
  215. But in that moment,
    something really interesting happened.
  216. She looked at that soldier,
  217. and she thought to herself,
  218. "He's the same age as me.
  219. He looks like me."
  220. And she put down the gun,
    and she walked away.
  221. Just from that little bit of similarity.
  222. The second girl had
    a totally different outcome.

  223. She also listened
    to the outrage campaigns,
  224. but she surrounded herself
    with individuals
  225. who were supportive of violence,
  226. with peers who supported her violence.
  227. She enclosed herself
    in an information bubble.
  228. She focused on certain
    emotional cues for months.
  229. She taught herself to bypass certain
    cultural inhibitions against violence.
  230. She practiced her plan,
  231. she taught herself new habits,
  232. and when the time came,
    she took her bomb to the café,
  233. and she followed through with that attack.
  234. This was not impulse.

  235. This was learning.
  236. Polarization in our society
    is not impulse,
  237. it's learning.
  238. Every day we are teaching ourselves:
  239. the news we click on,
  240. the emotions that we focus on,
  241. the thoughts that we entertain
    about the red team or the blue team.
  242. All of this contributes to learning,
  243. whether we realize it or not.
  244. The good news

  245. is that while the individuals I study
    already made their decisions,
  246. we can still change our trajectory.
  247. We might never make
    the decisions that they made,
  248. but we can stop contributing
    to violent ecologies.
  249. We can get out of whatever
    news bubble we're in,
  250. we can be more mindful
    about the emotional cues
  251. that we focus on,
  252. the outrage bait that we click on.
  253. But most importantly,
  254. we can stop seeing each other
    as just members of the red team
  255. or the blue team.
  256. Because whether we are Christian,
    Muslim, Jewish, atheist,
  257. Democrat or Republican,
  258. we're human.
  259. We're human beings.
  260. And we often share really similar habits.
  261. We have differences.

  262. Those differences are beautiful,
  263. and those differences are very important.
  264. But our future depends on us
    being able to find common ground
  265. with the other side.
  266. And that's why it is so, so important
  267. for us to retrain our brains
  268. and stop contributing
    to violent ecologies.
  269. Thank you.

  270. (Applause)