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Brain's Failure to Appreciate Others May Permit Human Atrocities

(Science Daily) A father in Louisiana bludgeoned and beheaded his disabled 7-year-old son last August because he no longer wanted to care for the boy. For most people, such a heinous act is unconscionable.
But it may be that a person can become callous enough to commit human atrocities because of a failure in the part of the brain that's critical for social interaction. A new study by researchers at Duke University and Princeton University suggests this function may disengage when people encounter others they consider disgusting, thus "dehumanizing" their victims by failing to acknowledge they have thoughts and feelings.
This shortcoming also may help explain how propaganda depicting Tutsi in Rwanda as cockroaches and Hitler's classification of Jews in Nazi Germany as vermin contributed to torture and genocide, the study said.
Community: But it’s possible to change perceptions in favor of inclusion and non-dehumanizing. From “A Natural History of Peace” (pdf) by Robert M. Sapolsky (Foreign Affairs, January/February 2006):
[O]ne often encounters a pessimism built around the notion that humans, as primates, are hard-wired for xenophobia. Some brain-imaging studies have appeared to support this view in a particularly discouraging way…
More recent studies, however, should mitigate this pessimism. Test a person who has a lot of experience with people of different races, and the amygdala [the brain’s emotion control center] does not activate. Or, as in a wonderful experiment by Susan Fiske, of Princeton University, subtly bias the subject beforehand to think of people as individuals rather than as members of a group, and the amygdala does not budge. Humans may be hard-wired to get edgy around the Other, but our views on who falls into that category are decidedly malleable.
And that’s why the recent controversy over TLC’s new series “All-American Muslim” is so important. The entertainment media can be a force for good, helping us become a global village where it’s less likely that hate can prevail. But that can only happen if fearful, xenophobic, right wing religious groups aren’t able to scare away advertisers from such shows.
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