Cognitive Column - December 2016

I imagine you will not be reading this (Does anyone?) until the New Year, but I am writing it while 'Tis the season to be jolly; I'll leave you to add the tra-la-la bit. Nevertheless, as I have listened to the news of late there seemed to be scant cause for jollity around the World. In my last Column I referred to the dramatic changes that had taken place, but the tectonic turmoil has continued unabated, and many of the shifting plates of societies around the World feel disastrously displaced from their accustomed sites. It took geologists quite a while to come up with the theory of plate tectonics, and so explain why the continents looked as if they could once have fitted together like a giant jigsaw puzzle. I suspect that it will prove a far harder task to explain fully why what seemed a relatively stable World has suddenly become so unpredictable. Experts from more than one discipline will be needed, such as economists, sociologists and historians - and for sure psychologists. Let's try a couple of psychological topics on the issue.

Scientists are currently developing the idea of building relatively simple robots that could work together in large teams, for example in search-and-rescue missions. As is so often the case, Nature was there first and the idea is modelled on the behaviour of social creatures such as bees or ants. The insects are relatively simple animals, with tiny brains and only a small repertoire of behaviours, but put them together in a colony and it is as if a new super-animal emerges with complex behaviours and abilities that seemed absent from the individuals. Unlike ants, humans are enormously complex as individuals; put lots together in a large colony, and perhaps the emergent behaviour becomes so complex as to defy prediction. This notion raises two issues. First, difficulty in making accurate predictions is not limited to societies - weather forecasting is the prime example. However, although meteorologists can't always get the prediction right, they can explain accurately in retrospect. By analogy, with hindsight we should be able to start looking for accurate explanations of human behaviour. There is another angle to this though, and that is to ask whether the unpredictable behaviour we are seeking to explain should have been there in the first place. What I am getting at is that, as a social animal, we have evolved to be able to 'read' each other; we have acquired what is known as Theory of Mind (ToM). This means that we are able to send and receive signals that make us relatively transparent, and as a result can guess what others are thinking, feeling or likely to do. We are not unpredictable. So, where has all this unpredictability come from? Macaque monkeys are social and their brains have been examined, looking at animals living in groups of various sizes. It has been found that regions in the prefrontal cortex and temporal lobes have greater volume and more connectivity in animals from larger groups. The equivalent area in the human prefrontal cortex is known to support ToM, and scanning shows that the cortical thickness here correlates with the size of a person's social network. The implication of these findings is that it takes brain power to cope with the intricacies of interacting with lots of others. In humans, as opposed to monkeys, there is a good deal of connectivity between this 'social' region and areas of the anterior cingulate cortex, a region of the brain involved with reward and punishment, and detecting whether outcomes are as expected or are unexpected - it gets seriously active if we are expecting a reward that doesn't come! Scanning this area not only shows activity in line with what happens to ourselves, but also what we see happening to others. Interestingly, the activity for others is not marked in people on the autistic spectrum, who of course find it difficult to read others' minds. Where they do display strength is in expressing sympathy; as long as they know what others are feeling they tend to be very empathic.

Some neat experiments involving rewards and electric shocks have revealed something about our tendency to be empathic and altruistic. People will tolerate shocks if given money and there is a fairly simple relationship between the strength of shock they will accept and the size of payment: the bigger the shock the more money they expect. People are also prepared to give others electric shocks in return for payment but, when the electricity is going to someone else, the majority require more money for a smaller shock. In other words they are reluctant to cause much discomfort to another individual, and this has been termed the altruism effect. There seems to be a region in the left prefrontal cortex which might be called the moral centre; it is this which becomes activated at the idea of hurting others for one's own benefit. These experiments were run anonymously, so that the person getting the shock and the one receiving did not know each other. Also, it was made clear to the 'shocker' that there would be no changing places, so their victim would not be able to get their own back. In spite of all this, people were kinder to others than to themselves. The moral centre is linked to a region called the striatum, which is involved with assessing the value of a reward. The link from the prefrontal cortex is inhibitory, so the effect is that the more a person is aware of another's pain, the less rewarding it feels to be paid to hurt them. Psychopaths are deficient in this mechanism, but are good at ToM, hence they are good at being cruel and manipulative; they lack empathy.

So, where does all this get us? Well, for a start it will perhaps come as no surprise to learn that business leaders tend to score lower on empathy than any other trait that might have relevance to their role. One can imagine this applying to a good many politicians too, but whether or not it does, most seem to spend their time cosying up to big business anyway, and in our globalised world it is the business giants who appear to pull many of the strings. Thus, in significant measure, our destinies are being dictated by people driven to feather their own nests, while at the same time lacking noticeable concern for any negative impact that may have upon the rest of us. Of course, like all good psychopaths, their theory of mind is second to none and they are very plausible. They have beguiling stories to explain why their getting rich is the only way to help others.

The 'others' no longer seem content to accept those stories, and this must in large part be because people feel nothing whatsoever in common with the powers-that-be. Remember that it takes mental effort to interact with a social group; we evolved with the ability to operate in a relatively modest clan, much like the macaques. A rather defenceless creature such as ourselves (relatively small and slow, no big teeth or claws) benefitted enormously by acting in concert with others, but there is a downside. For sure, the bigger the group the more powerful it is, but also, with many mouths to feed, the bigger its demands on environmental resources. There are other factors too, such as the rate of spread of infectious diseases when there is one large congregation of individuals, as opposed to several dispersed smaller groupings. All in all, there is an optimal size range for a band of hunter-gatherers, and our brains evolved in that context. With the advent of farming and transport (and, interestingly, cooking) it became possible to gather in much larger numbers, with many people not actually engaged directly with food production.

Whether the march of civilisation and group enlargement should be seen as a climb or a descent depends upon the viewpoint. That we manage at all is certainly a tribute to the remarkable flexibility of the human brain, but it has been flying in the face of one corner of that organ; strictly, it is all too big for comfort. We get around this by having pseudo-groups. I'm a Man of Kent; I don't live there now, but I still feel a kind of allegiance. Obviously I know only the tiniest fraction of the millions of people who live there, but there's the sense of kindred spirits. I feel sorry for them when the M20 is closed due to the lorries backing up when striking French close their ports; I don't think I'd feel quite so involved if it was the road to Southampton say. However, they are at least British at the other end of the M3 and that's another, even larger group, to whom I expect most of us feel some kind of connection. Nevertheless, when the chips are down our allegiances shrink; first country perhaps (Scots not British for example) then maybe our town, or people working in the same industry, and ultimately those people who made that bit of cortex grow - the friends we actually know. I think it's the chips being down that counts; while things are muddling along tolerably enough, then we cope with large groupings. Problems breed parochialism.

The very expression 'powers-that-be' sounds remote. Such people are not easily perceived as being in our group. The faceless bureaucrats of Brussels don't stand a chance! Come to that, it's not much better for the incumbent political class nearer to home - and that's wherever home is, whether UK, France, Italy, USA or many more. It's not just that the politicians are not in our group - we are not in theirs. Their group (in the UK) is commonly referred to as the Westminster Village. That's where their buddies are to be found, the people who think like them and share their values. True, down the years there have been a few who were great philanthropists, cognisant of the conditions of the masses, but to the great majority of MPs the British public is merely an indecipherable, amorphous mass, to be placated with half-truths and lies. It's another case of 'when the chips are down', and for our politicians they are down every five years. When that happens their only interest in the population is that as many as possible vote for them. Unfortunately for our mendacious masters, recent years have presented problems aplenty, and that is when humans shrink alliances and appear to be unpredictable to those left outside. People external to the smaller circle are automatically distrusted, and that applies whether they are foreigners (who are generally teetering near the perimeter anyway) or leaders. From an evolutionary perspective we would do better with local decision making but, given that we have to have remote leaders, we go for candidates who are as different as possible from the current crew, ideally espousing ideas that chime with our own - that way we can almost kid ourselves that they are in our group. These kinds of principles have resulted in the rise of people such as Farage, Trump and Corbyn. We might well ask where will it all end. That's where I play the weather forecaster card - I'm not as good at predictions as explanations - and even those might be a bit flaky!

Well, we can't leave the Festive Season's Column on such a doom-laden note. I received a nice Christmas card. It showed Santa lying on a psychiatrist's couch (I'm sure that's a stereotype that can't apply any more). The therapist (who sounds a good deal more empathic than a Freudian analyst, so clearly isn't a business leader) is saying, "The important thing is that you believe in yourself!" I do hope you had a good Christmas and that 2017 holds all that you could reasonably hope for, especially on the academic front.


A couple of (abbreviated) references that touch on the themes I raised:

Crockett et al. (2014). Harm to others outweighs harm to self in moral decision making. PNAS 111, 17320-17325.

Holt & Marques (2012). Empathy in leadership: appropriate or misplaced? Business Ethics 105, 95-105.