by Aditi Mishra – I write this on the twenty fourth week of a year that continues to keep getting worse. There is aggression everywhere and social stability is currently looking like a magician’s trick. A rapidly devolving trick.
In times like these, it is sometimes comforting to see what science has to offer. That’s why over these last few weeks I had been listening to Dr. Robert Saplosky. I was hoping for some insight in the science of human and primate behavior. And I found some.
So here are some facts on aggression in humans and primates that had me thinking in the last few weeks.
- We are not the only species that fashions tools for violence. Chimps have been seen to pick up heavy branches and break off ancillary branches and use it like clubs.
- We are not the only species that commits pre-mediated organized violence. Male chimps of a single group have been documented to systematically kill all the males of a rival group outside their territory.
- We are not the only species that tries to reconcile. Kiss and make up – sounds familiar? It exists in gorillas as well. Two male gorillas from the same group are more likely to engage in social grooming after a fight. In fact, macaques are more likely to reconcile with macaque individuals that they have cooperated with before.
- We are not the only ones who suffer when our friends or neighbors are hurt. Rats are more sensitive to pain if they hear a rat giving out an alarm call – but not any other rat, they are sensitized when it is their cage mate giving out an alarm call.
- Hierarchies are not always despotic. There are different kinds of hierarchies – top down and bottom up. In top down hierarchies, the alpha takes a disproportionate share of the resources – like in chimps, baboons (and may be humans?). In bottom up hierarchies the leader gets to stay at the top because of cooperation from everyone and if the number one individual becomes abusive they are overthrown – like in vervet monkeys (and may be humans?).
- Hormones don’t generate despotic social structures. Sometimes they simply amplify existing social disparities. Testosterone gets a bad rep. We blame it for aggression, some people use it as an excuse for bad behavior and patriarchy. In fact, there is a PNAS paper that shows that short term exposure to testosterone can lead to increase in both pro-social and antisocial behaviors as long as both the behaviors are status – enhancing behaviors. Testosterone definitely modulates aggression, but it definitely does not cause it.
- Pain makes aggressive individuals more aggressive – to subordinates.
- The amygdala (the part of the brain implicated in fear) activates more when you see faces of people from a different race – but not in people who grow up/stay in racially diverse neighborhoods. Further, the amygdala doesn’t activate as much if people are primed to look at the pictures as individuals rather than as part of a group. Even asking a simple question like what do you think, does the person in the picture like coke or pepsi? makes people consider the individual in the pictures and the amygdala lights up less. The brain is not hardwired to playing us versus them – just suggestible to doing so.
- Us versus them is a sliding scale. There is a Bedouin saying that goes like this – “It is me, my brothers and my cousins against the world. It’s me and my brothers against my cousins.” Oxytocin is commonly called the cuddle hormone, but it can be more sinister than it sounds. While short term exposure to oxytocin is correlated to lesser intragroup aggression and more cooperation, it is also correlated with willingness to sacrifice an ‘’outsider’’ in the classic trolley problem situation. But once again it doesn’t draw the us versus them line. It amplifies existing biases.
- Our socioeconomic status bleeds through and alters our prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is like the Ferrari of our body. It is extremely energetically expensive. It takes the longest time to develop. Hence it is least confined to the dictates of genes and most influenced by the environment. Most importantly it is the part of the brain that makes an individual take the harder but ultimately the more rewarding thing. It is the part of the brain that makes a person ask if their first instinct is indeed correct – if that stranger is indeed holding a knife or is that a cellphone. Research shows that being born in a poor, stressful environment is correlated with a thinner prefrontal cortex as opposed to being born in a middle class, supportive family. One of the biggest predictors of aggressive behavior is growing up in an aggressive family or neighborhood.
So with all of this and more – I don’t know, I’m confused. I’m disappointed that there is no neurotransmitter, hormone or magic potion that makes people instantly kind. But I’m still hopeful because there is not much that hardwires us to be cruel either.
And while being cooperative in this new world might be tough, from what we understand it is not impossible.
P.S: For the uninitiated, Dr. Saplosky is an amazing lecturer and professor of neurology and neurological sciences at Stanford.
- Introduction to Human Behavioral Biology – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NNnIGh9g6fA&list=PL848F2368C90DDC3D
- Testosterone causes both prosocial and antisocial status-enhancing behaviors in human males.
- Dreher, J. C., Dunne, S., Pazderska, A., Frodl, T., Nolan, J. J., & O’Doherty, J. P. (2016). Testosterone causes both prosocial and antisocial status-enhancing behaviors in human males. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 113(41), 11633-11638.