Conflict Resolution Strategy: The Neuroscience of Empathy in Conflict

There is a great piece in yesterday’s UK Guardian newspaper about the neuroscience that underlies the Conflict Model of this blog. The piece is about the French essayist Michel de Montaigne, who during the dangerous disorder in 16th century France, let a gang of armed men inside his castle despite the risk of their attacking him. It is also about the light modern neuroscience throws on what happened.

By his naturally sympathetic manner, he seems by his own account to have disarmed their intentions and stopped any attack. The piece was on 3 Quarks daily too, but here is the full article:

The article links this to the newly discovered ‘mirror neurons’ that simulate in us the actions and feelings of others. I will post on this in more detail soon. This phenomena underlies Stage 3 of the Conflict Model: Getting Empathetic.

What really interests me is under what circumstances we turn off our natural sympathy for others? So that we can do them harm? Think about the last row you had with your partner or a close friend; and how it often came after a period of exceptional closeness, when you seemed to be flowing along together nicely. Then one of you said something that started a breach and before you knew it, both of you were angry and utterly unable to feel any sympathy for the other and for the way they too are feeling. You have both switched off your mirror neuron firing, and can no longer feel each other’s pain. This is what, I suspect, often happens in conflict, especially in situations of escalation. Think about it when you next have conflict with someone you are close to. I am hoping to do some experimental work with a brain imaging lab to test this hypothesis when I can get some funding.

What to do about such situations? Well I guess from my time in Labor Relations, the best thing you can both do is to adjourn. Not storm out, but say to each other: ‘We need some time out. Let’s move away from each other for half an hour or whatever to calm down‘ (and allow our mirror neurons to resume their normal functioning.) And if you know how to, this would be a good time to meditate to re-ground yourself.

What about this effect in situations of mass killing.  I would suggest that when we mentally steel ourselves that we dealing with the ‘enemy’, the empathy effect also works less strongly. How do we feel about the Tea Party? And how do they feel about others? Going a step further, if we characterize the other as sub-human as the Nazis did, it works not at all. And if we progressively dehumanize them, as the Nazis did en route to the gas chambers, then we are doing this deliberately so we feel nothing for them. The Nazis also tended to use surrogate killers when they could, and make it as mechanical as possible.

In the last 60 years militaries around the world have overridden the well documented reluctance of soldiers to kill others, by training them to kill on reflex: hence the popping up targets to be shot at reflexively. And there will always be people in mob type situations who lose any sympathy for the other side as part of a group.

Roy Bauermeister’s work on mass killing suggests that the only reliable sources of sustained mass killing are fear of the other and idealism, preferably both. Fear of the other allows the empathy to be switched off. And idealism allows you to override the effect for some delusional higher good. (See my posting on the Heart of Darkness Graphic Novel)

And yes, there are people who lack this effect altogether, and we have probably worked for some of them in our careers. They move successfully, sometimes ruthlessly up hierarchies, because they lack any natural sympathy for others; some may even become politicians, where people want to be your friend because of the power you exercise, not your personal qualities. Nevertheless, I often feel sorry for politicians, as Montaigne no doubt would have done. And perhaps we get the ones we deserve??

Footnote: I loved the recent book: ‘How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer‘ by the marvelous Sarah Bakewell, which contains the anecdote about Montaigne’s handling of the invasive gang. And I am back reading Montaigne’s Essays as a result. 🙂

Michel de Montaigne

About creativeconflictwisdom

I spent 32 years in a Fortune Five company working on conflict: organizational, labor relations and senior management. I have consulted in a dozen different business sectors and the US Military. I work with a local environmental non profit. I have written a book on the neuroscience of conflict, and its implications for conflict handling called Creative Conflict Wisdom (forthcoming).
This entry was posted in Conflict Book Reviews, Conflict History, Conflict Processes, Neuro-science of conflict, PERSONAL CONFLICT RESOLUTION: CREATIVE STRATEGIES, Ways to handle conflict. Bookmark the permalink.

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