Saturday, February 11, 2012

understanding is not the same as compassion

Wow, I didn’t even know this kind of research was possible, but it blew my mind.  I read through the methods pretty carefully to make sure that it was legit.  It was published in a very reputable journal by brain researchers from MIT, so they have the credibility.  Here is a summary of what they found.

They had Israelis, Arabs, and South Americans read different stories about individuals from all three groups.  All of the stories involved either the person experiencing physical pain (stepping on a thumbtack) or emotional pain (not getting an expected raise at work).  They did fMRI on three areas of the brain.  The area that we use to predict the physical experience of another person, the area that we use to predict the emotional thoughts of another person, and the area where we feel compassion.  They also asked the people to verbally rate how much physical or emotional pain they thought the person in the story was feeling, and compassion they felt for the person in the story.

So here is what shocked me.  What matters when modeling both the physical and emotional pain of the other person is based on experience and knowledge.  So Israelis could accurately predict how much pain the Israelis in the story felt.  They could also accurately predict the pain felt by the Arabs, who they know pretty well.  But they were less accurate at predicting the pain of the South Americans, who they don’t have as much experience/knowledge of (on average).  The same thing was true of the Arabs.  They could accurately predict their own pain and the Israelis’ pain, but were less accurate for the South Americans.  This was true of the fMRI areas and the verbal reports. So it wasn’t any kind of unconscious self-deception.

But the bias appeared with the feelings of compassion.  The conflict groups (Arabs to Israelis and Israelis to Arabs) were lower in the fMRI and the verbal reports than either the self-group or the distant unknown out-group.  So Arabs felt the Israeli's pain, they just didn't care.  And vice versa.  But both groups did care for their own group and for the South Americans.  Somewhere in between actual prediction of the pain and compassion for the pain, the conflict group goes down and the distant unknown group goes up.  Again, it was true of both the fMRI and the verbal reports.  So it is not self-deception, it is something really electronic in the way the brain is wired.  Whether it is conscious or unconscious, our brains electrically add compassion to distant groups when we think it is deserved, but it decreases compassion to the conflict group because we think it is not deserved. 

Not a good finding when it comes to hoping for eventual peace.  Facts don’t seem to matter. A better understanding of the other person’s situation won’t help, because that group doesn’t “deserve” compassion, even if their pain is real.

The next paper in this journal is by University of Michigan researchers on political candidates. Can’t wait to read that one.

Motivated Reasoning

I have often blogged about the phenomenon of motivated reasoning.  This afternoon, I had a stark, in my face experience with it myself.  I spilled some coffee on the carpet in my rental apartment this morning.  It would definitely leave a stain if I didn’t clean it up right away.  But I plan to live here at least another year or two.  There will definitely be some more stains by the time I leave that I don’t notice in time to clean.  So when I get my move out inspection, will this one extra stain really make a difference?  It would be really easy just to ignore it.  It is pretty small.

I can remember the motivated reasoning occurring in my head as I type.  I imagined the day of the check out inspection, the person looking at the entire carpet and deciding whether it needs either cleaning (normal wear) or replacing (deduct from my security deposit).  I imagined him looking at all the stains and deciding.  The small coffee stain has little to do with his final decision.  

If this sounds reasonable, I make the classic fundamental attribution error and ignore the stain today.  We value things (in this case the time to clean) today more than we value things (in this case the security deposit refund) in the future.  This is the classic overdiscounting error and is the basis for our overly strong desire for instant gratification. 

Only if this best case scenario (because it allows me to skip the cleaning) seems clearly unreasonable would I be motivated to clean the stain at that moment.  Nope.