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Neuroscience and Social Conflict: Identifying New Approaches for the 21st Century

What if you put neuroscientists, social scientists, conflict resolution experts, and diplomats together in a room? Is there something to the “human dimension” of conflict that the science of the brain can inform the art of conflict resolution and mitigation?┬áThe Project on Justice in Times of Transition, in partnership with the SaxeLab at MIT, launched the initiative “Neuroscience and Social Conflict: Identifying New Approaches for the 21st Century” to find out.

The first meeting was February 9-11, 2012, at MIT in Boston. PJTT and SaxeLab brought together a high-level group of experienced leaders from the Middle East, South Africa, Northern Ireland, and Central America with conflict conflict resolution experts, social psychologists, and leading neuroscientists to survey the latest findings in neuroscience and brain research to brainstorm and exchange ideas for addressing conflict.

I attended the February meeting and it was an eye-opening few days that started early and continued over dinner into the night. The presentations were honest, devoid of grandiose assertions of magic bullets, and each were followed by collegial discussions fueled by fresh questions and ideas.

Rebecca Saxe, the Director of SaxeLab, highlighted some of the general assumptions most scientists looking at conflict and conflict resolution share:

  • People respond to conflict as human beings and there is some generalized experience that can be captured
  • Behaviors can reflect emotions, associations, norms, and narratives that are not accessible through cognition or introspection
  • People resist changing their minds and simple persuasion is almost never sufficient to make them change

The science presentations shared research on how particular parts of the brain were involved with specific behavior and emotions, such as fear.┬áDiscussions included the role of humiliation in perpetuating war, motivations for “prosocial” and empathetic behavior, group norms, among others.

The acknowledged drawback of some of the existing scientific research is the “normal” person for much of the brain imaging is an MIT student, which all acknowledged is not a true representation. The scientists were eager for advice on how to modify their experiments to test on relevant questions, topics, and people.

The first meeting left all of the participants more interested than when the meeting started. Follow up ideas include:

  • Convening a second meeting to inventory key areas of research relevant to conflict resolution
  • Studying specific conflict resolution approaches to test assumptions underlying various established methodologies
  • Exposing leading neuroscientists to active conflict resolution and negotiation situations
  • Generate opportunities for concrete research on perpetrators of violence who have been de-radicalized [see Google Ideas' "Formers" project]
  • Evaluating the impact of social media-based public diplomacy efforts
  • Create a multi-disciplinary study and research program that investigates core questions related to conflict resolution

This effort continues with a working group, which I am a part of, to help guide the initiative forward. The working group includes:

  • Matt Armstrong, former Executive Director, U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy
  • Eileen Babbitt, Fletcher School of Law and Public Diplomacy, Tufts University
  • Dan Batson, Professor of Social Psychology, Kansas University
  • Kim Brizzolara, feature film and documentary producer
  • Emile Bruneau, Researcher, SaxeLab, MIT
  • Betsy Levy Paluck, Professor of Psychology, Princeton University
  • Mohammed Milad, Massachusetts General Hospital, Department of Psychiatry
  • Tim Phillips, Co-founder, Project on Justice in Times of Transition
  • Lee Ross, Professor of Psychology, Stanford University
  • Rebecca Saxe, Professor Cognitive Neuroscience; Director, SaxeLab, MIT
  • Gary Slutkin, Executive Director, CeaseFire
  • Jessica Stern, former member of President Clinton’s National Security Council staff

There is more to come on this subject.

Your thoughts?