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Deep-rooted conflicts divide the world and many people’s societies.
Violence in Israel and Gaza often sparks heated debates among friends, family, and strangers. This comes on top of increasingly sharp rifts in the United States, including fights over gun control, policing, abortion, and other social and political issues.
Scientists studying the intersection of conflict and human behavior say it is essential to understand the biology behind these harmful interactions. They say being aware of our deep-seated urges can help us learn how to diffuse flammable situations.
And the rare but remarkable people who learned this lesson, such as Nelson Mandela and U.S. Representative Shirley Chisholm, changed history.
Understand wired responses
Research shows that as social beings, humans are wired to form strong bonds with groups that help us survive external threats. It’s a natural evolutionary impulse.
Olga Klimecki, a neurology researcher and lecturer at the University of Jena in Germany, says brain scans show how powerfully social identities can shape our emotional responses to situations. says.
For example, when someone sees a fellow sufferer, a member of the same group, the brain responds with empathy. “My brain simulates the suffering of others by reactivating my own feelings when I feel bad,” Klimecki explains.
But instead, it is adversary When experiencing pain, the same empathic regions of the brain not only don’t activate, but “they also activate even more in association with schadenfreude and malicious pleasure,” she says.
In other words, we empathize based on social affiliations such as race, ethnicity, religion, or politics.
That’s not all. Conflict literally weakens the brain’s ability to feel love. Klimecki said research has shown that couples who have just had an argument have less activity in areas of the brain associated with attachment and affection.
Lessons from peacemakers
So what should we do about it?
A veteran conflict resolution expert, Tim Phillips has negotiated some of the most difficult conflicts in modern history, including the ceasefire in Northern Ireland and the establishment of what became South Africa’s post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Supported.
He says he has seen these evolutionary impulses shape how we compete with those around us and on the world stage.
Phillips is not a neuroscientist, but his decades of peacebuilding experience shows that political stability and peace sometimes depend on the ability of individual leaders to understand and overcome some of their biology. He says that he has come to understand what is going on.
“Unfortunately, when we ignore how the brain actually works, we increasingly find ourselves in a situation where we’re throwing bad approaches after bad approaches,” Phillips said. says.
According to Phillips, conflict deepens and escalates quickly when we feel it threatens what we hold most dear: our sacred values, our social identity, or our people. We dig deeper and become less rational. When such emotions are stirred up or abused, they can subvert our moral values, morph into hatred and inhumanity, and enable atrocities.
From apartheid to race relations in the United States
Therefore, in order to defuse an escalating situation, you must first free your brain from being hijacked by defensive emotions. According to Phillips, it means, for example, telling the other person, “I understand how important this is to you. I understand that this is core to your identity and your community, and I want to help you.” “I respect the sacred values of the people of Japan.”
It means reflecting the other person’s humanity in the other person. A similar approach could help reduce harmful polarization, he says. This is effective because when arguments get heated, people tend to demonize each other. A counteracting act that can invalidate the assumption of negative intent.
Phillips says he has seen people become emotionally disarmed simply by acknowledging the humanity of their opponents in disagreements. It could bring together fierce opponents and change history.
He called one of his captors, South African President FW de Klerk, an “honorable man”, referring to Nelson Mandela, who was released from 27 years of political imprisonment in 1990.
At the time, the world supported Mandela and vilified de Klerk. Mr. Phillips said that Mr. Mandela’s calling Mr. de Klerk “honorable” had a great influence on Mr. de Klerk.
“He was probably deeply surprised, without thinking rationally. But Mandela just gave him a bridge,” he says.
The two continued to work together to end apartheid.
He cites a little-known example from 1972. Shirley Chisholm, the first black congresswoman in the United States, was competing for the Democratic presidential nomination with her bitter racist and political opponent, Alabama Governor George Wallace.
After he was shot in an assassination attempt, Ms. Chisholm visited him in the hospital and prayed for his recovery at his bedside.
“Wallace’s daughter later said that gesture of sympathy changed her father forever,” Phillips said. Mr. Wallace reportedly cried openly and changed his stance on racism.
how to talk to friends and family
Phillips says this approach can be effective even on a small scale. Recently, Ms. Phillips said she used them to mend a long-standing friendship damaged by sharp political differences. Mr. Phillips offered an olive branch, expressing respect for his friend’s perspective and appreciation for the social context that led him there.
Within days, the friend returned to say that Phillips’ understanding had caused him to reconsider his hard-line views.
“He literally said, ‘I felt like I could breathe again and get our relationship back together, and I started to change my mind,'” Phillips recalled. His friends acknowledged that they disagree with many of the platforms his party espouses, even if Phillips wasn’t trying to sell him on policy.
He says that while he and his friend may still disagree on many things, at least they can still talk.
If you’re having a particularly heated discussion, neurologist Klimecki suggests taking “micro-breaks” to regain perspective. She also suggests taking steps to reduce stress. This is because stress reduces the function of the part of the brain that helps us think rationally.
“The more chronic stress you have, the less your prefrontal cortex functions,” she says.
So she advises getting more sleep, taking deep breaths, or thinking about things that put you in a positive mood. All of this reduces stress and increases your ability to deal with conflict better. And, if possible, keep the dialogue open with her friends and loved ones, even if their opinions differ.
Carmel Ross edited this article.