I attended a Neuroscience and Social Conflict conference at MIT this week, sponsored by Beyond Conflict and Saxelab, MIT’s Social Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory. The goal of the conference was to examine the practices of the conflict resolution community to determine whether research in neuroscience could shed light on the effectiveness of our work. For example, one of the assumptions about resolving conflict that was being challenged by our science colleagues was that resolution to conflict requires a “rational” approach. The idea is, bring people together to have dialogues about the issues that divide them and you will ultimately be able to resolve the differences. Well, how many well-meaning conflict resolution organizations have convened dialogues in, for example, the Israeli/Palestinian conflict? I would answer that by saying hundreds if not more. So why hasn’t that conflict been resolved? What else is going on in these intractable conflicts that our methodologies are not reaching? What are we missing?
One thing that shed light on this issue was addressed by Emile Bruneau, a neuroscientist from MIT. He told us that 95% of our behaviors are driven by unconscious forces. To call these unconscious forces, “rational” is the farthest from the truth. These forces are driven by the primal, emotional parts of our brain—the part that responds to threats in our environment. When these responses first evolved in our early ancestors, they were responding to life and death threats from the environment. Their survival depended on these quick actions. The problem is that these responses today are just a bit out of date. The threats that we experience today do not come from wild animals chasing us, they largely show up as threats to our dignity.
One thing we can say about conflict is that at its core, are deep dignity threats. The idea of bringing conflicting parties together without addressing these profoundly emotional aspects of the threats they experience from one another is like trying to stop a tsunami with an outstretched hand.
One of my favorite quotes by John Naisbett is this: “The most exciting breakthroughs of the 21st century will not occur because of technology, but because of an expanding concept of what it means to be human.”
What our neuroscience colleagues are doing is giving us insight into what it means to be human. With their ability to see what is happening in our brains when we are emotionally overcome, the truth about how powerful our emotional reactions is being revealed. They have the ability to hijack our more rational selves (the other 5%). If we want to address conflict in all of it’s complexity, we have to embrace the truth about what is driving it.
The other “truth” that was shared by Emile was that we should not feel disheartened by the fact that unconscious forces are driving our behavior a lot of the time (He uses the metaphor of the elephant and the rider. We think that we, the rider, are controlling our decisions, but in fact, it’s the elephant who is in control—the 95%).
He said that the brain is ultimately flexible and has tremendous plasticity. Even though the 95% may be dominating our actions, we do have the capacity, with learning and effort, to circumvent these primal impulses. But it does take conscious effort. We have to want to change. We have to commit to working on controlling these primal aspects of our being before they control us. Just because these instinctive responses are hardwired into us doesn’t mean they cannot be managed. As Jerome Barkow, an evolutionary psychologist from Oxford University says, “Biology is not destiny unless we ignore it.”
If we continue to shy away from working with these deep emotional drivers, we will continue to see unbound conflict in the world. I’m not just talking about international conflicts. Conflicts within ourselves, our families, our workplace, our communities and schools all stem from the same source—not knowing how to manage the 95%.
My attempts at understanding the emotional circumstances that trigger the primal, often violent behaviors associated with threats to who we are, are all framed using the dignity lens. Since these primal, self-preservation responses are usually triggered by assaults to our dignity, it is imperative that we learn all we can about it so that we can respond appropriately. Educating ourselves about all things related to dignity will help us tame the 95% so that we can live a more balanced inner and outer life. Strengthening our 5%–extending its reach so that we are not slaves to our primal self-preservation instincts—is a matter of urgency. After all, what if that self we are preserving is in desperate need of change?