Summary of Mari Fitzduff's Introduction to Neuroscience for the Peacebuilder - Part 1

Heidi Burgess

Guy M. Burgess

July, 2017



This is the first of a two-part video series summarizing Mari Fitzduff's monograph entitled An Introduction to Neuroscience for the Peace Builder. In it, I describe Mari's key idea, that there are biological reasons why people tend to think and make decisions the way they do--it is not all socially determined.  However, while people are biologically predisposed to take in, process, and act on information in different ways depending on their genes, they are not predestined to do so.  Predispositions can be changed.  However, peacebuilders need to understand that they are often swimming upstream and they need to adjust their efforts to deal with neurobiological tendencies as well as political and social factors.  In this first video we look a lot at the role of emotion and reason and how getting emotion out of conflict resolution is not a realistic, or helpful goal.

Discussion Questions: 

These questions are not introduced in the video until the end of the second Fitzduff video.  But they relate to Guy's video on Social and Psychological Complexity and this video as well as the second video on Fitzduff.  So I am including them here. 

  • What can and should peacebuilders do about the predispositions described in this video?  Particularly,
    • How do we address people's emotional needs as well as their rational interests and needs in our peacebuilding work?
    • How can we work within the constraints of non-rational/emotional thinking, rather than engage in a futile effort to convert all thinking to the rational approach?

Discuss these questions on D16.


Full Transcript

Hi this is Heidi Burgess. Today I want to talk about our friend Mari Fitzduff’s monograph entitled An Introduction to Neuroscience for the Peace Builder. I have to admit, I've been hearing about neuroscience for quite a while, and was pretty skeptical about it.  But when Mari suggested that I read this in 2015, I did, and I became convinced that there really was a lot of value here. I realized that there really were things that we peacebuilders should begin to take a whole lot more seriously.

But I kind of forgot about it and hadn't thought about it a whole lot until we started doing this complexity unit and Guy started working on a post on Social and Psychological Complexity and I then went back and re-read this monograph. I was absolutely astounded with the degree to which Mari essentially predicted the outcome of the November 2016 presidential election in the United States, and went a long way towards explaining why it happened, and what is happening now. Many of us were shocked and horrified and dismayed and we kept on asking ourselves what went wrong. What did we miss? How could this possibly have happened? And the answers are actually sitting right in Mari's monograph.

Let me explain. The basic idea here is that we have two different modes of thinking: reason or rationality, and emotion. Now most of us think that these play equally in our head or if we are scientists, we like to think that reason has a much more predominant role than emotion, which has a much smaller one.  Even if were not scientists, we often think that this is the desirable way of dealing with conflict. I used to teach a conflict skills class. At the beginning of the class, I asked my students what they thought they were good at, and what they thought they needed to improve at.  A very common answer was that they wanted to stop being so emotional when they were involved in conflicts and learn how to be more rational or to make decisions based on reason. So this is a very common preconception and expectation and rational decision-making is seen to be the preferable-- by far superior-- way of making decisions.

Unfortunately, it's simply not realistic. In actuality, emotion often plays a much bigger role than reason does, and this is explained by many people. Mari does it by likening one’s thought process to a camera. Now a camera usually has two modes--a manual mode and an automatic mode. She likens this to the relationship between emotion and reason. The automatic mode is much quicker, much easier to use. It is not as nuanced and not as flexible. The manual mode is much slower, but it allows you much more control over the picture you're taking. You can put in nuance. You can put in careful focusing and careful lighting that you just can't do with the automatic mode.

Likewise, emotion is quick. It's fast, it's easy to use, its automatic. Reason takes a lot more effort. It's a lot slower and you have to override a lot of the emotions you are feeling to make a “rational” decision.

Be honest. Which do you use most of the time?  I fancy myself a pretty good photographer and when I'm taking pictures, I'm usually using automatic mode. When I'm making decisions, am I always rational? I won't pretend to say I am. Rather, emotion often comes to the fore--and it does for all of us.

Mari goes on to explain that this is because of the way our brains are built and the way they operate. Reason takes place in the prefrontal cortex. Emotions, however, take place in a small part of the brain down in the bottom, shown here in orange, called the amygdala.
As small as it is, it often sends out much stronger signals than the prefrontal cortex and overwhelms any sort of reasoning that's going on. Jonathan Haidt famously likened the relationship between reason and emotion to an elephant and a rider. The rider would like to think that he or she is in control, but in reality, often she isn't. The elephant is much bigger, much stronger and if it becomes excited or worried or agitated, it is going to do what comes naturally to it. It's not going to follow the orders of the rider.

Similarly, when a person is under stress, when they're afraid, when they are in a new situation, when they're in a group situation, emotions tend to run wild and overcome any reasoning that's going on.

This is the first way in which Mari explained to me what happened with the election. This choice was made almost entirely emotionally and not rationally. A fully rational person would have looked at the two leaders and would have looked at their policy statements and would have come to the conclusion that one was far more ready, far more experienced and prepared for the presidency than the other. But most people weren’t making the decision rationally—they were responding emotionally.  While Clinton had a lot going for her emotionally, she also had heavy baggage of negative emotions going back years and years and years.

On page 16 of the monograph, Mari wrote, “we want our leaders to speak with certainty about issues we are concerned about, often irrespective of the substance of those arguments.” I put in the italics because those words just jumped out at me. I kept on saying during and after the election “doesn't it matter what he is saying? Doesn't matter what she is saying?”  NO. What matters is the certainty about which people speak. This again is Mari's language from page 16: “our need is for them, [in other words leaders], to be clear and strong, particularly if we are afraid.”  And this is the emotional element that Trump really played into. He worked very hard to make people afraid and then he presented himself as a clear and strong leader who was going to fix the things that they were afraid of.

Mari points out that this psychological tendency likely was the result of human evolutionary history. Our devotion to leaders and leadership probably developed to facilitate our cooperation in large groups. Again on page 16. she says “we appear to be programmed to be led and to have faith in hierarchies because of a desire to conform and be protected.”

But some people have more desire to conform and be protected than others. This evolution happened differently in different groups of people. Biology as well as sociology influences the way we think, the way we process information that we take in, how we use our emotion in decision-making, the amount of control we have over our emotions, our need to belong to a group, our willingness to strike out on our own, our values and, closely linked to that, the importance of ideology. Neuropsychology also influences how we identify enemies, how we see facts, what we remember and forget, what we are afraid of, our suspicions of out groups, and the level to which we need leaders to tell us what to do. All these political attitudes and behavior are driven by neurobiology, as well as our environment.

Neurobiologists have measured this with brain scans as well as many other kinds of tests and have found that there are two general kinds of people.  Mari didn't call them Republicans and Democrats--she called them “traditionalists” and “conservatives” and just as a shortcut here, I put the symbol for the Republican Party because they tend to be the conservative.  Studies have shown conservatives to be more sensitive to fear and uncertainty, and therefore to advocate for policies that stand a good chance of protecting them from both. They seek order and structure and certainty and less risk. So they back policies that they think will provide security -- stronger military and police, stronger criminal sentencing and tougher immigration laws. These ideas were taken from the monograph written in 2015. You could add the proposed Mexican border wall to this list--which is a 2016-2017 development. Mari didn't know about that.

Liberals, on the other hand, tend to use a different portion of their brain when they are making decisions in dealing with conflict and this is something called the left insula. This portion of the brain is associated with self- and social awareness. People who utilize this heavily tend to be more open to new things; they can better tolerate uncertainty and complexity; they are more comfortable with risk and social change and they are much more flexible than the traditionalists.

Now, Mari stresses that these differences aren't good or bad, they just are. And we need both. Why?

Well again, for evolutionary reasons. Conservatives tend to follow their leader. They believe what they're told. They hang together tightly and they don't rock the boat. Now most people can imagine how this would be helpful when humans were first beginning to form cohesive social groups and societies. And it's still useful because if every individual is going their own way, doing whatever they wanted to do, you would have anarchy! You wouldn’t have society at all. So we need people to hang together, to follow certain rules of behavior, to follow traditions, to share the same language and culture. We need this if we’re going to be a unified culture and society.

But we also need people who question authority and ordinarily-accepted facts who take risks and try new things and who are more open to engaging with other people outside their group because that's the only way we change and adapt. The outside world is changing very quickly now and with global communication and the Internet we are in contact with people who are very different from us all over the world. So there needs to be some people who are comfortable with this, who know how to deal with this, and who can help us change our traditions and our societies in order to adapt to these new conditions. So we still need both.

So biology predisposes people to be liberal or conservative. The result is that it causes one side to value care and fairness to others, and this often translates into government action to redistribute wealth and power and protect vulnerable populations. The other side values such characteristics as loyalty, sanctity, authority, and liberty. And this, among other things, translates into small government and little government intervention.  Jonathan Haidt, who Mari quotes in the book quite a bit, says “morality both binds and blinds.”  Individual beliefs are driven by group beliefs and that binds us closely to our group and holds groups together. But it blinds us to outside points of view. Quoting from page 19, “once our views have been formed, we have a tendency to see and find evidence in support of already existing beliefs and we ignore evidence that challenges them.”

So Mari explains that ideology is not a system of truth, as we often think it is, but rather essentially, it's a group adaptation. “Ideologies are born out of particular social contexts, they are allied to our physiological needs, such as differing neural sensitivities to threats, greater need for the security of identity, and the greater certainty of belief, that a group can provide.

This brings us to the question “why do we believe what we believe?” Because it's true? Mari asked and her answer is “rarely!” Rather, beliefs come, first, from our physical characteristics and then from our social environment. We mainly rationalize what our guts and our fears tell us.

That gives us a number of what social psychologists call “cognitive biases.” One is the “confirmation bias,” which we've essentially already been talking about already.  It is the adjustment of our thinking to fit what we want to believe. It is an essential part of evolutionary adaptation. It's built into humans. It's unavoidable.

Another example is the “attribution bias,” which is he a tendency to attribute different causes and justifications to our own beliefs and actions, than we do to others. So when bad things happen, it is natural that we think it's the other person's fault, not ours. For instance, we claim that their violence is terrorism, but ours is justified by security needs.

Group pressure can radically alter normal behavior also. The group overrides individualism. Group pressure can radically alter normal individual behavior and reasoning and cause people to do highly atypical and violent things such as, in this picture, rioting, or attacking people at rallies, or advocating for policies that they personally might not like, but the group is pressuring them to support.

All of these cognitive biases explained to me things that I couldn't earlier understand. How could the voters in the 2016 election have voted the way they did, knowing what they knew? Well, it turns out what I knew and what the other side knew, or what we thought we knew, were very different. Our values were very different. The things we worried about were very different. And this wasn't just because of what we were hearing in the debates and the ads in the newspaper and the speeches. It was because of the way our brains work.

Mari stresses in this monograph that predisposition does not mean predetermination. Twin studies suggest that genetics accounts for about 53% of the difference in political attitudes (Fitzduff, p. 11).  So that means 47% is environmental. Now your group is your environmental influencer, so you may be predisposed to be a conservative or liberal, and if you hang out with people of a different predisposition, you might be able to change. But if you hang out with people with the same disposition, the chances of change get very, very small.

Mari likens the process of changing people's attitudes to turning a supertanker. It can be done, but it takes considerable time and effort.

Most importantly, she says, there is nothing deterministic about what is revealed by the research in this paper. Brains are relatively plastic. They can change both their hardware and software.  But this is difficult and it takes much time.  We will talk about what it takes in the second video the second video.

Referenced Resources

Picture Credits

Slide 3: By Krassotkin (derivative), Gage Skidmore (Donald Trump), Gage Skidmore (Hillary Clinton) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

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Slide 12:  Elephant / Sunset– Source:; By: sasint; Permission: Public Domain.  Elephant in River – Source:; By: Anajim; Permission: Public Domain

Slide 13: By Krassotkin (derivative), Gage Skidmore (Donald Trump), Gage Skidmore (Hillary Clinton) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons.

Slide 14: by Gage Skidmore

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