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“Us vs. Them” Thinking Is Hardwired—But There’s Hope for Us Yet
Neuroendocrinologist, Professor of Biology and Neurology at Stanford University
Robert Sapolsky has a bone to pick with oxytocin, or rather the public’s perception of oxytocin. It is the love hormone, we’ve surely all read by now. It helps us bond to our parents, then to our lovers and later to our own children. An extra dose can increase empathy, goodwill, and understanding. But it’s not all sunshine and rainbows, here’s the catch: those warm fuzzy feelings are only generated for people you already favor. Oxytocin, represented more honestly, is the hormone of love and violence. Its effect in the presence of people you consider “others” is preemptive aggression, and less social cooperation. It creates distance as often as it bonds love, and we are hardwired for those social dichotomies. Humans invent “Us” and “Them” groups wherever they look, whether it’s on the basis of sex, race, nationality, class, age, religion, hair color—there’s nothing we won’t discriminate against, and we do it within a twentieth of a second of seeing someone. Are they an “Us” or are they a “Them”? The flaw in this hardwired thinking reflex is also its silver lining: it is ridiculously easy to manipulate. A racial bias can be duped by something so simple as putting a cap with your favorite sports team’s logo on someone’s head, for example. You can overthrow your brain’s most primal reactions in this way but, as history shows, other people can also get in your head and manipulate the Us versus Them reflex to tragic and catastrophic results. Robert Sapolsky is the author of Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst.
Robert Sapolsky: So when you look at us—us as humans, as apes, as primates, as mammals—when you look at some of the most appalling realms of our behavior, much of it has to do with the fact that social organisms are really, really hardwired to make a basic dichotomy about the social world, which is those organisms who count as Us’s and those who count as Thems.
And this is virtually universal among humans and this is virtually universal among all sorts of social primates that have aspects of social structures built around separate social groupings. Us’s and Thems: we turn the world into Us’s and Thems and we don’t like the Thems very much and are often really awful to them. And the Us’s, we exaggerate how wonderful and how generous and how affiliative and how just like siblings they are to us. We divide the world into Us and Them.
And one of the greatest ways of seeing just biologically how real this fault line is, is there’s this hormone oxytocin. Oxytocin is officially the coolest, grooviest hormone on earth, because what everybody knows is it enhances mother-infant bonding and it enhances pair bonding in couples. And it makes you more trusting and empathic and emotionally expressive and better at reading expressions and more charitable. And it’s obvious that if you just, like, spritzed oxytocin up everyone’s noses on this planet it would be the Garden of Eden the next day.
Oxytocin promotes prosocial behavior. Until people look closely. And it turns out oxytocin does all those wondrous things only for people who you think of as an “Us”, as an in-group member. It improves in-group favoritism, in-group parochialism.
What does it do to individuals who you consider a Them? It makes you crappier to them, more preemptively aggressive, less cooperative in an economic game. What oxytocin does is enhance this Us/Them divide. So that, along with other findings—the classic lines of Us versus Them along the lines of race, of sex, of age, of socioeconomic class: your brain processes these Us/Them differences on the scale of milliseconds, a twentieth of a second, your brain is already responding differently to an Us versus Them.
Okay, so collectively this is depressing as hell. Oh my god, we are hardwired to inevitably be awful to Thems, and Thems along all sorts of disturbing lines of: “Oh, if only we could overcome these Us and Them dichotomies! Oh no, are we hardwired to divide the world along lines of race and ethnicity and nationality and all those disturbing things?” And what becomes clear is, when you look closely is: it is virtually inevitable that we divide the world into Us’s and Thems and don’t like Thems very much and don’t treat them well.
But we are incredibly easily manipulated as to who counts as an Us and who counts as a Them. And those fault lines that we view as, “Oh my god, how ancient can you get?” that say, somebody of another race evokes limbic responses in us, commensurate with they are a Them, they respond, they motivate automatic responses—”Oh my god, is that just the basic fault line?”
And then you do something like have faces of the same race versus other race, and either they are or aren’t wearing a baseball cap with your favorite team’s logo on it, and you completely redefine who’s an Us. Us is people who like the Yankees and Them are Red Sox fans. And suddenly you’re processing, within milliseconds, what damn baseball cap they have, and race is being completely ignored.
“Oh my god, we are inevitably hardwired to make really distressing Us/Them…” We’re manipulated within seconds as to who counts as an Us and a Them.
Good news with that: we can manipulate us out of some of our worst Us/Them dichotomies and re-categorize people. Bad news: we could be manipulated by all sorts of ideologues out there as to deciding that people who seem just like us “really aren’t. They’re really so different that they count as a Them.”
Okay, so a fabulous study showing this, this double-edged quality to oxytocin, and this was a study done by a group in the Netherlands. And what they did was they took Dutch university student volunteers and they gave them a classic philosophy problem, the runaway trolley problem: “Is it okay to sacrifice one person to save five?” Runaway trolley: can you push this big, beefy guy onto the track who gets squashed by the trolley but that slows it down so that five people tied to the track don’t… Standard problem in philosophy, utilitarianism, ends justifies means—all of that. So you give people the scenario and people have varying opinions, and now you give them the scenario where the person you push onto the track has a name. And either it’s a standard name from the Netherlands, Dirk I think, this is like a meat-and-potatoes Netherlandish name. Or a name from either of two groups that evoke lots of xenophobic hostility among people from the Netherlands: someone with a typically German name—oh yeah, World War II, that’s right, that was a problem—or someone with a typically Muslim name.
So now they’re choosing whether to save five by pushing Dirk onto the track or Otto or Mahmoud and, in general, give them those names and there’s no difference in how people would rate them if they were anonymous.
Give people oxytocin, where they don’t know that they’ve gotten it—control group has just placebo spritzed up their nose—give people oxytocin and, kumbaya, you are far less likely to push Dirk onto the track, and you are now far more likely to push good old Otto or good old Mahmoud onto the rails there.
And you are more likely to sacrifice an out-group member to save five, and you are less likely to sacrifice an in-group member. All you’ve done there is exaggerate the Us/Them divide with that.
Why are these White House briefings heard but not seen?
June 22, 2017: 4:07 PM ET
“Live coverage banned.”
That’s what the graphic said on CNN as the White House daily press briefing was about to begin on Thursday.
The White House designated the Q&A as “off-camera” and, at first, prohibited broadcasting audio as well — something it has done several times this month.
Then the administration said television and radio networks could air the audio, but only after the briefing was over.
It was the latest in a series of evasive maneuvers by the Trump administration, leaving journalists fuming and some Trump supporters cheering.
Most importantly, the public was left in the dark.
The White House did not specify why it decided to forbid television cameras from showing Thursday’s briefing. But the Q&A came on a pivotal day for the administration, with deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders fielding a battery of questions about Senate Republicans’ newly-unveiled health care bill, President Trump’s admission that he did not tape his conversations with former FBI director James Comey, and other topics.
The White House has only held two on-camera briefings in the past two weeks.
Inch by inch by inch, the administration has been rolling back press access, which means less information for the public.
The State Department and the Pentagon have all but stopped holding on-camera briefings, too.
Some veteran reporters and Washington observers have warned that the reduction in access could, in addition to hurting the public, actually harm both the administration — hampering its efforts to communicate about Trump and his agenda — and the press corps.
Past administrations sometimes held similar off-camera sessions, colloquially known as “gaggles,” but usually as a supplement to on-camera briefings.
Trump’s press shop has been doing it more often, as a way to limit on-camera opportunities. They added the prohibition on audio broadcasting of some of the off-camera briefings earlier this month.
“The nice thing about turning the cameras off sometimes, and I find this, is that it is not ‘performance art,’ as you call it, that you end up having, I think sometimes, a more substantive discussion about actual issues because they’re not trying to get their clip,” White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said on the “Laura Ingraham Show” Wednesday. “They’re not trying to figure out, ‘How do I get on TV? How do I ask some snarky question?’ You can actually focus on the substance of the issues.”
CNN vividly showed the new restrictions in action on Thursday by broadcasting live pictures from the briefing room until the moment Sanders stepped up to the podium.
Then the control room cut away to Wolf Blitzer, who explained the prohibition.
Immediately after the briefing ended, when the White House rules stipulated that the briefing audio was usable, CNN aired the briefing in its entirety.
Fox News and MSNBC also noted the unusual arrangement on Thursday.
Once the briefing “finishes, we will be able to bring you some of the highlights,” Fox anchor Jon Scott said.
Both Fox and MSNBC played snippets of the audio with a photo of Sanders on screen.
CNN’s Jim Acosta, who was outspoken about briefing room tensions earlier in the week, said on Twitter on Thursday, “I’m off today but it must be said that YOUR White House is taking away YOUR right to see and hear YOUR government answer questions today.”
He acknowledged that off-camera “gaggles” with aides are common, but said, “This is different. It’s a briefing without the cameras. Why is that?”
Some prominent Trump allies, like Newt Gingrich, have celebrated the White House’s “stick it to the media” strategy. Trump routinely assails the “fake news” media, most recently at a Wednesday night rally. He falsely said CNN had turned off its cameras because of booing.
But the administration’s actions have repercussions for all Americans. By almost every measure, the Trump White House has reduced transparency about the workings of government. Trump reversed the Obama administration’s policy of releasing White House visitor logs, for example.
CNN’s Jake Tapper addressed the matter on Tuesday’s edition of “The Lead.”
“People in power like to hide things from the public,” he said. “We called it out under President Obama, and now it is empirically worse and more opaque. You have a right to know what is going on in the people’s house, whether related to the Russia crowd that continues to hamper President Trump’s agenda or his plans for Afghanistan or tax reform or health care legislation, all of it.”
John Kirby, a former Pentagon and State Department spokesman under Obama, said in an op-ed for CNN.com that regular on-camera briefings benefit the American government.
“In the search for better ways to articulate the President’s agenda, the answer shouldn’t be no or even fewer briefings. It should be better briefings,” he wrote.
New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen said he disagreed with Kirby’s assertion that the administration is hurting itself by avoiding questions from reporters.
“That’s true only if you assume that Trump is trying to win the argument, persuade the doubters, or gain the approval of a greater percentage of the public,” Rosen told CNN. “What if he’s not? In campaigns you can quit trying to reach the undecided and just focus on turning out the base. Trump seems to have taken this approach to governing… It’s time we saw the decay in communications as a feature of the Trump presidency, not a bug.”
Made me laugh…. and who knew this concept would be possible.
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