In 2016, just take a look around America and its obvious that the country is currently embroiled in a state of hate. Hatred in politics have deepened political lines, belittled the political process to the level of elementary school name-calling, and obstructed meaningful discourse. Hatred in communities have pitted neighbors against one another, re-instituted racial barriers, and motivated community members to take a violent stance against authority figures. Is there a neurobiological basis to the hate — does one even exist? An age old debate has questioned whether hatred is learned or innate. Can a child who has never been exposed to hating another individual on any basis — whether because of race, gender, citizenship, religion, sexual orientation or socioeconomic status — still demonstrate hate?
The work done by psychologist Gordon Allport (1954) suggested that there may be an innate driving force behind hatred. It is the idea that members of an ethnic group have a preference for the well-being and success of its own group, that is other individuals who look just like them (in-group). Interestingly, in-group members don’t realize the existence of their own grouping, relative to others. Yet their “hostility toward out-groups helps strengthen [their] sense of belonging”. While this statement does not mean that in-group members have a natural hatred toward those outside of the group or those who do not look like them (out-group), it does mean that in-group members can and will exhibit bias and prejudice toward out-group members if doing so means protecting their in-group.
In today’s American society, this is the grievance of communities of color, the LGBT community, immigrants, Muslims, and others who feel unseen, unheard or otherwise misunderstood.
Research shows that there is also a neurobiological correlate to hate. Dr. Semir Zeki of the University College London showed that when looking at the face of a hated person, the human brain shows increased activity in specific areas of the brain that they called the hate circuit [medial frontal gyrus, right putamen, premotor cortex, frontal pole, and medial insula].
There are two main reasons why the ‘hate circuit’ is relevant to the discussion. First, it is important because two of the strongest areas of activation for hate also overlap with love. Both emotions can motivate acts of extreme heroism or acts of unfathomable harm. Yet only one of these causes of deactivation of all brain areas of logic and reasoning. The other emotion — hate — leaves your reasoning, planning, and motivation centers of the brain fully intact to plot a defensive attack, be it logical or not. Second, the researchers also point out that this hate circuit “has components that have been considered to be important in generating aggressive behavior and translating this behavior into motor action through motor planning”.
If we applied these findings to the America, circa 2016, it renders the image of a country of segregated communities, with limited understanding or concern for neighboring out-groups, in a climate of increasing prejudice and hateful rhetoric. Yet we wonder why aggressive interactions between these groups also seem to be on the rise.
Although Dr. Zeki’s research shows a brain circuit for hate, it does not show a cause. For example, what happens if this circuit is disrupted in some way — will the person’s hate disappear along with it? Conversely, what happens to individuals whose hate circuits never fully develop — do these people become the Mother Theresa’s of the world? Even more relevant to the issues of the day: is there a way to dampen the activity of the hate circuit? It seems that answering this latter question could be a solution to helping to remove the communication barriers that seem to be increasing in communities across the nation.
Dr. Allport gave us a practical way of doing just that years ago with his Contact Theory. If ethnocentrism means being prejudiced against entire cultures and people solely because of the customs and standards of one’s own culture, Allport suggests we simply broaden our experiences!
Humans tend to fear what they don’t understand and things that are different from the norm. Allport is saying that we can normalize those things that are different if we increase our interpersonal contact with those who are different from ourselves. Doing so means that we gain the perspective of what is normal and custom to someone outside of your in-group. This is the most effective way to improve our understanding of each other’s daily experiences, grievances, and perhaps even the inappropriate nature of some prejudices.
I’m looking forward to the study that shows how we can break the hate circuit. Until then…if you want to understand my pain, you’re invited to walk a mile in my shoes. I wear a size 9!