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Jan 10, 2016

Ted Cruz’s Stone-Age Brain and Yours

tags: science relevant to history,empathy


Rick Shenkman is the editor of HNN. His newest book is Political Animals: How Our Stone Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics (Basic Books, January 2016). This article first appeared on in shortened form. This version specifically addresses the challenge historians face when writing about subjects that cry out for empathy.

Related Link Historians Need to Write and Teach with Empathy By Walter Moss

After Senator Ted Cruz suggested that the United States begin carpet bombing Islamic State (IS) forces in Syria, the reaction was swift. Hillary Clinton mocked candidates who use “bluster and bigotry.” Jeb Bush insisted the idea was “foolish.”  Rich Lowry, the editor of National Review, tweeted: “You can't carpet bomb an insurgency out of existence. This is just silly.”

When CNN’s Wolf Blitzer objected that Cruz’s proposal would lead to lots of civilian casualties, the senator retorted somewhat incoherently: "You would carpet bomb where ISIS is -- not a city, but the location of the troops. You use air power directed -- and you have embedded special forces to direction the air power. But the object isn't to level a city. The object is to kill the ISIS terrorists." PolitiFact drily noted that Cruz apparently didn’t understand what the process of carpet (or “saturation”) bombing entails. By definition, it means bombing a wide area regardless of the human cost.

By almost any standard Cruz’s proposal was laughable and his rivals and the media called him on it. What happened next? By all rights after such a mixture of inanity and ruthlessness, not to say bloody-mindedness against civilian populations, his poll numbers should have begun to sag. After all, he’d just flunked the commander-in-chief test and what might have seemed like a test of his humanity as well. In fact, his poll numbers actually crept up. The week before the imbroglio, an ABC opinion poll had registered him at 15% nationally. By the following week, he was up to 18% and one poll even had him at a resounding 24%.

How to explain this?  While many factors can affect a candidate’s polling numbers, one uncomfortable conclusion can’t be overlooked when it comes to reactions to Cruz’s comments: by and large, Americans don’t think or care much about the real-world consequences of the unleashing of American air power or that of our allies. The other day, Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported that, in September and October, a Saudi Arabian coalition backed by the United States “carried out at least six apparently unlawful airstrikes in residential areas of the [Yemeni] capital,” Sana’a.  The attacks resulted in the deaths of 60 civilians. Just about no one in the United States took notice, nor was it given significant media coverage.  More than likely, this is the first time you’ve heard about the HRW findings.

You might think that this is because the conflict in Yemen is off our national radar screen.  But how much attention have Americans paid to U.S. air strikes and bombing runs in Iraq?  Washington has literally been bombing Iraq on and off for twelve years and yet few have taken much notice.  That helps explain why bombing is such an attractive option for Washington any time trouble breaks out in the world.  Americans don’t seem to care much what goes on when our bombs or missiles hit the ground.  As pollsters found recently, a surprising number of Americans even want to bomb places that can’t be found on a map.  When Public Policy Polling asked GOP voters in mid-December if they favored bombing Agrabah, 30% said they did (as did 19% of Democrats), while only 13% opposed the idea.  Agrabah is the fictional city featured in the Disney movie Aladdin.

GOP Voters:  Would you support or oppose bombing Agrabah?

Support bombing Agrabah…………………….. 30%

Oppose bombing Agrabah………………...…… 13%

Not sure………………………………......……….… 57%

That 57% were “not sure” might be considered at least modestly (but not wildly) reassuring.

Why Cruz’s Numbers Went Up

History suggests that this blanket bloodthirstiness or at least lack of empathy for those on the other end of America’s bombing campaigns isn’t new. In March 1951, nine months into the Korean War, Freda Kirchwey, a crusading liberal journalist at the Nation, expressed bewilderment at American indifference to the fate of Korean civilians killed by our bombs. The destruction was awful.  Little was left standing, structurally speaking, in North Korea.  Nothing, she complained in a column, “excuses the terrible shambles created up and down the Korean peninsula by the American-led forces, by American planes raining down napalm and fire bombs, and by heavy land and naval artillery.” And yet few seemed bothered by it.

Because she was an optimist Kirchwey expressed the hope that Americans would eventually come to share her own moral anguish at what was being done in their name.  They never did.  If anything, the longer the war ground on, the less Americans seemed interested in the fate of the victims of our bombing.

Why didn’t Americans show empathy for the victims?  The answer has to do with the fact that our brain was designed to address the problems of the Stone Age, the two and a half million year period during which it mainly evolved. In a modern setting empathy is actually very hard for human beings.  It’s hard because in many circumstances an empathic response is an unnatural act. It is not natural for humans to feel empathy for people who look different and speak a different language.  It is not natural for us to feel empathy for those who are invisible to us as the bombing victims were.  Nor is it natural for us to feel empathy for people who are of low status as were the Korean peasants we were killing.  Recent studies show that when we are faced with a choice of killing a single individual to save the lives of several we are far more apt to do it if the individual we are sacrificing is of low status. When subjects in an experiment are told that the people being saved are of high status the number of people willing to let the low status victim die increases. 

Another social science finding helps us understand why empathy is often in short supply.  Once we have decided on a course of action and convinced ourselves that it’s correct – as Americans became convinced during the Korean War that we had to bomb the hell out of Korea in order to stave off a communist victory – our brain helps us overcome any hint of guilt we may be inclined to feel over the loss of life by dehumanizing the victim. This is a classic case of cognitive dissonance.  Our brain hates to feel torn between conflicting emotions.  So it rationalizes doing what it wants to do by discounting the feeling giving rise to negative emotion, in this case, guilt. An extreme example is what happened when the Nazis decided to sideline Jews and later wipe them out. From the moment the Nazis began their ruthless anti-Semitic campaigns they used hideous images to convince people that Jews were little different than rats.  It’s far easier to kill someone if you can convince yourself they aren’t really human. Rather than feeling empathy for the downtrodden Jews Nazis felt contempt and disgust.  These strong emotions swamped whatever other feelings they might have felt deep down. 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.  In other words, we literally pay the homeless no mind (or less mind).

This sounds cruel and uncaring.  But as far as biology is concerned it makes perfect sense.  Our genes are selfish, as biologist Richard Dawkins teaches.  That means they are built to enhance their replication.  Replication, in effect, is 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 interferes with it by diverting the attention of the host – that’s you and me – from activities that will enhance survival.

We don’t have to make a conscious decision to ignore the fate of people who are low in status.  Our brain does this automatically and seamlessly.  Out of conscious awareness it decides if someone is useful to us.  If the person is, our brain suddenly achieves a state of hyper attentiveness:  our nostrils flare, the eyes widen, the ears tune in relevant sounds.  Think of what would happen to you if you found yourself in the presence of somebody important like Bill Gates.  And if someone is deemed useless to us?  Unless we are worried that they pose a threat, our brain tells our body to relax.

Because it is in our biological interest to feel empathy for people from our own tribe and family – people in a position to either enhance our survival or perpetuate our genes – we come equipped with mechanisms to help us distinguish our people from outsiders.  From the moment we’re born we focus on the people around us and bond with them.  A mother and child know each other through smell.  Brother and sister recognize in each other’s familiar facial features.  When we hear someone speaking a foreign language we instinctively discount their humanity.  This was shown in a 2014 experiment designed to determine if human beings are more willing to sacrifice someone who speaks a different language in order to save the lives of several others.  The finding was clear-cut.  Only 18 percent of subjects in the experiment were willing to make the cold calculation that saving the lives of several people at the cost of one life was fair when the intended victim shared their native language.  But the percent willing to sacrifice the person more than doubled when it was revealed they spoke a foreign language.  The experiment’s results remained the same whether the subjects spoke Korean, Hebrew, Japanese, English or Spanish.

Why Stories Matter

I want to do two things in this piece while I have you here.  One, is to convince you that achieving empathy is harder than you may think when the person hurting is not from your tribe.  I hope I have done that.  Two, is to show you there are ways to achieve empathy and these involve tasks for which the historian is particularly well-suited. 

Let’s return for a moment to the Korean War. From the perspective of 2015 Americans’ inhumanity seems appalling. Time gives us an advantage contemporaries lacked.  It gives us distance. In historiography courses in college this distance is often described as a disadvantage.  For it’s always hard to imagine what life was like for people living in a different time and place.  But what appears on the surface to be a disadvantage in understanding a situation that happened in the past is often actually an advantage.  It’s one the historian exploits regularly. It’s the reason historians generally find it easy to spot inhumanity:  We aren’t wearing the blinders that block the vision of people caught up in events.  We ourselves and our children aren’t at risk. As in this case, the Korean War happened to other people, not to us.  

Distance is not alone sufficient, however.  To truly understand what the Korean people were going through we need to get inside their heads.  This is also something historians do as a matter of course.  We mind read.  We plunge into the archives and read everything we can get our hands on:  diaries, oral histories, any and everything that will help us see life as the people we are writing about saw it.  In effect, one of our chief tasks is to be empathetic. 

But there’s still one obstacle we need to overcome.  Somehow we have to communicate our knowledge to our readers.  Here we fall back on an ancient art:  storytelling. It is this, more than anything else that gives us the ability to help readers achieve a powerful feeling of empathy for people who lived at a different time and place.  Stories hold the readers’ attention, for one.  For another, they feed our readers’ strong human urge to find meaningful patterns in human behavior. As scientists have now demonstrated in experiments on split brain patients, the human brain is a natural pattern finder.  It wants 1 + 1 = 2.  Mysterious may be the will of God, but here on earth we expect human behavior to be explicable. 

Stories connect us to people in a way nothing else can.  It’s the reason politicians tell stories.  Years ago, the distinguished Harvard social scientist Howard Gardner wanted to discover what highly successful leaders have in common. After reviewing the lives of eleven luminaries, from Margaret Thatcher to Martin Luther King Jr., Gardner concluded that their success depended to a great deal on their ability to communicate a compelling story, “narratives that help individuals think about and feel who they are, where they come from, and where they are headed.” These stories, he found, “constitute the single most powerful weapon in the leader’s literary arsenal.”

When people are reduced to numbers—as the civilian victims of bombing during the Korean War were—we don’t feel their pain. We don’t automatically put ourselves in their shoes, which is by definition what you do when you are feeling empathic. We have the bomber pilot’s problem. We don’t feel anything for the victims. But historians can help. Storytelling is in our toolkit.  All we have to do is use it.

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