In his illuminating 800-page book “Behave,” Stanford neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky describes how the brain shapes our actions, sometimes based on hard-wired “Us versus Them” predispositions.
For example, the recent, awful kerfuffle around police actions and sometimes violent protest reactions illustrate all too graphically just how hard, nigh impossible, it is to shake the sense there are two kinds of people in the world — us (good) and them (likely bad).
Alas, most of us are captive of this incredibly strong Us versus Them syndrome, which developed in our brains in cave-dwelling times, when this now-toxic behavior made eminently good sense in a really dangerous world.
Nebraska Governor Pete Ricketts epitomized the syndrome recently in a conversation with black community leaders, when he referred to them, instinctively, as “you people.”
This is the first of two columns on this topic. The column next week is the tough one — What to do about our present plight?
Sapolsky devotes 40 pages solely to the topic of us versus them. He reports that our brains are irrepressibly hardwired to unconsciously break down the world around us into whites v. blacks; rich v. poor; urban v. rural; elites v. rednecks; Cubs v. Cardinals fans. This action in our limbic system, that is, the emotional parts of the brain, apparently helped humans eons ago to simplify and “understand” the world around us.
Even babies begin to distinguish between us and them, in separating the world around them by things such as skin color. By the way, according to Sapolsky, a MacArthur Foundation “Genius” award winner, skin color evokes the strongest us v. them reactions, which can spur racism, of course.
However, even baseball fans will, according to psychological experiments, be more helpful to a distressed fan who is wearing their team’s colors over someone sporting those of the reviled opponent.
Our upfront, prefrontal cortex — the thinking part of the human brain — developed long after the rest of the noggin’. This PFC tries to override the us v. them wiring, but with uneven and limited success.
The question is what can be done to: 1) reduce “us versus them-ing,” and 2) improve the lot of African-Americans and other groups that appear to suffer from it.
According to Sapolsky, about the only mental state of mind that can reduce the us v. them conflict lies in his call for us to “individuate,” that is, evaluate each person as an individual, apart from any general notions we might harbor about groups of “thems.” Unfortunately, I fear, and I think Sapolsky would agree, such self-discipline will take generations, if ever, to override completely the us versus them syndrome.
So, for the present, we are left with the challenge of figuring out how we can help make life better for those “thems,” who may have less than us.
The conventional response, beginning largely with the 200 programs of the Great Society of Lyndon Johnson in the 1960s, has been basically to: 1) increase access to educational opportunities for minority groups, and 2) soften inequality by spending more on social support programs.
LBJ’s programs have brought some minorities into the middle class who might not have made it otherwise. I worry, however, that the panoply of Great Society social service programs may have seduced those in difficult straits to take the easy path out, rather than strive to achieve. Debate continues to rage over observations like this.
I contend as well that these programs have contributed to the decline of the nuclear family, which has contributed to the growth of negative subcultures, both in isolated urban neighborhoods and in white rural America, where single motherhood (and absent fatherhood) has mushroomed.
Social workers I talk with in rural Illinois lament that many single mothers — and often grandmothers as well — have for whatever reasons lost the skill and capacity to rear their children effectively.
If there is anything to the above, what can be done to turn these subcultures around?
Next week, I tackle this challenge. My lead-in will be somewhat as follows: After centuries of us v. them-ing in America, reflected in a history of slavery; Jim Crow laws; unimpeded, even casual lynchings; denial of the vote, and barriers to good jobs and higher education, why in the world should minorities now think that majority whites, even if they could, will resolve their problems for them? The brain ain’t wired to do that.
For many years, Jim Nowlan was a senior fellow and political science professor at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. He has worked for three unindicted governors and published a weekly newspaper in central Illinois.