Building the Pentagon’s empathy weapon

BBC| 2 May 2012

By Sharon Weinberger
Activists in Pakistan burn a US national flag (Copyright: Getty Images)(Copyright: Getty Images)

The Pentagon wants to understand the science behind what makes people violent. The question is what do they plan to do with it?

Violence follows common patterns

In February this year, the US government was forced into full damage limitation mode. News that US troops in Afghanistan had sent copies of the Koran to be incinerated, sparked a wave of deadly protests that left 36 people dead and more than 200 injured. Despite an apology from President Barack Obama and assurances that the burning was accidental, the public relations offensive launched to counter the damage done to the military’s reputation and stem the violence showed little sign of success.

Now imagine that instead of employing public relations experts to advise on the best strategy, US officials had a device that could advise them what to say, generating a story based on a scientific understanding of the brain’s inner workings to soothe tempers and calm the mood of the population. It sounds like something from a science fiction blockbuster, but is in fact the premise behind the Pentagon’s growing interest in the neurobiology of political violence, a relatively new field that combines neuroscience with more traditional social science-based approaches to understanding human behaviour.

One programme, started last year by the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa), even looks at finding ways to generate versions of events that could be used in attempts to persuade people not to support the enemy. Known as Narrative Networks, it seeks to “understand how narratives influence human thoughts and behaviour, then apply those findings to a security context in order to address security challenges such as radicalization, violent social mobilization, insurgency and terrorism, and conflict prevention and resolution,” says William Casebeer, the Darpa official leading the work.

The idea is straightforward: scientists have long known that narratives exert a powerful force on the human mind, helping to shape people’s concept of individual and group identities, even motivating them to conduct violent acts. Some bloggers and people posting on Twitter have suggested the Pentagon is seeking to elevate brainwashing to a science. “Darpa looking to master propaganda via Narrative Networks,'” read the headline of a report on the science news website Phys.org, for example, alongside countless similar blog posts and tweets.

Those involved in the research disagree. “None of the work we are doing, nor anyone else I know in the Narrative Networks group, is about increasing the ability of soldiers or sailors to kill people or to brainwash people,” says Paul Zak, a professor at Claremont Graduate University in Claremont, California, who specializes in neuroeconomics, and whose work has been funded by the Darpa program.

Zak and others see this type of research being used in the shaping of messages that shows the US military in the best possible light, such as by highlighting its humanitarian work abroad. “Is there a way to hold events that might publicise things like healthcare, public health factors, [or] tooth brushing for children and you could give away half a million toothbrushes,” he says. “There could be things that help countries understand that most of the time what we want to do is get along with everybody.”

Zak’s work involves trying to understand how listening to stories affects the brain’s natural release of oxytocin, sometimes called the trust hormone. “Why are we grabbed by some stories and not others?’ he says. “It just seems like a great question to ask.”

To test his theories, Zak uses an experiment that involves involves university students watching a short video featuring a father describing his son’s battle with brain cancer. After watching the video, Zak measures oxytocin levels in the blood of the participants, as well as their willingness to give the money they’ve earned from participating in the experiment to charity. “Our hypothesis is that this connection system that human beings have, which utilizes oxytocin, is activated by these same kinds of narratives, these same kinds of stories,” he says.

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