Tuesday, October 13, 2009

David Brooks as Pop Social Scientist

Brooks has an interesting column where he summarizes what he learned at an academic conference (I guess they cannot all be boondoggles). The conference was a meeting of the Social and Affective Neuroscience Society. The focus is the piece is on the reality that individuals in different cultures process information they receive differently.

Many of the studies presented here concerned the way we divide people by in-group and out-group categories in as little as 170 milliseconds. The anterior cingulate cortices in American and Chinese brains activate when people see members of their own group endure pain, but they do so at much lower levels when they see members of another group enduring it. These effects may form the basis of prejudice.
Sounds like Gladwell's Blink book, but also social identity theory which has much relevance for scholars of ethnic conflict. Brooks goes on to point out that in experiments these effects of identification can be manipulated to lessen people's instincts to react differently to different kinds of people.

The funny thing is that Brooks either intentionally or unintentionally begins the piece with a stereotype:
When you go to an academic conference you expect to see some geeks, gravitas and graying professors giving lectures.
Is he trying to be ironic and hip by imitating that which he learned during the conference, or is he just sorting academics into a pre-conceived box. Or is it just the desire for alliteration? I don't resent the gray or the geek reference, but gravitas? Hmmm.


Steve Greene said...

It is interesting research, but I really don't know that the "neuro" angle gets us much past what psychologists already know. Sure it is interesting to know where in the brain these snap judgments are being made, but social-psychologists have long understood that these judgments happen and the circumstances which exaggerate and attenuate these judgments. That's where the rubber hits the road-- not whether its in your caudate nucleus or not.

Bill Ayres said...

The neurological angle is only interesting to the extent that it can help us understand different reactions - ie are some people's brains wired differently than others? If everybody has the same brain structures and responds the same way, then it doesn't tell us anything the social psychologists haven't already figured out. On the other hand, works like Greg Berns' ICONOCLAST, which focus on differences in a small segment of the population, can be very useful.