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  • Transcriber: Leslie Gauthier Reviewer: Camille Martínez

  • So I'm starting us out today with a historical mystery.

  • In 1957, there were two young women,

  • both in their 20s,

  • both living in the same city,

  • both members of the same political group.

  • That year, both decided to commit violent attacks.

  • One girl took a gun and approached a soldier at a checkpoint.

  • The other girl took a bomb and went to a crowded café.

  • But here's the thing:

  • one of the those girls followed through with the attack,

  • but the other turned back.

  • So what made the difference?

  • I'm a behavioral historian, and I study aggression,

  • moral cognition

  • and decision-making in social movements.

  • That's a mouthful. (Laughs)

  • So, the translation of that is:

  • I study the moment an individual decides to pull the trigger,

  • the day-to-day decisions that led up to that moment

  • and the stories that they tell themselves about why that behavior is justified.

  • Now, this topic --

  • it's not just scholarly for me.

  • It's actually a bit personal.

  • I grew up in Kootenai County, Idaho,

  • and this is very important.

  • This is not the part of Idaho with potatoes.

  • We have no potatoes.

  • And if you ask me about potatoes,

  • I will find you.

  • (Laughter)

  • This part of Idaho is known for mountain lakes,

  • horseback riding,

  • skiing.

  • Unfortunately, starting in the 1980s,

  • it also became known as the worldwide headquarters

  • for the Aryan Nations.

  • Every year, members of the local neo-Nazi compound

  • would turn out and march through our town,

  • and every year,

  • members of our town would turn out and protest them.

  • Now, in 2001, I graduated from high school,

  • and I went to college in New York City.

  • I arrived in August 2001.

  • As many of you probably are aware,

  • three weeks later,

  • the Twin Towers went down.

  • Now, I was shocked.

  • I was incredibly angry.

  • I wanted to do something,

  • but the only thing that I could think of doing at that time

  • was to study Arabic.

  • I will admit,

  • I was that girl in class that wanted to know why "they" hate "us."

  • I started studying Arabic for very wrong reasons.

  • But something unexpected happened.

  • I got a scholarship to go study in Israel.

  • So the Idaho girl went to the Middle East.

  • And while I was there, I met Palestinian Muslims,

  • Palestinian Christians,

  • Israeli settlers,

  • Israeli peace activists.

  • And what I learned is that every act has an ecology.

  • It has a context.

  • Now, since then, I have gone around the world,

  • I have studied violent movements,

  • I have worked with NGOs and ex-combatants in Iraq,

  • Syria,

  • Vietnam,

  • the Balkans,

  • Cuba.

  • I earned my PhD in History,

  • and now what I do is I go to different archives

  • and I dig through documents,

  • looking for police confessions,

  • court cases,

  • diaries and manifestos of individuals involved in violent attacks.

  • Now, you gather all these documents --

  • what do they tell you?

  • Our brains love causal mysteries,

  • it turns out.

  • So any time we see an attack on the news,

  • we tend to ask one question:

  • Why?

  • Why did that happen?

  • Well, I can tell you I've read thousands of manifestos,

  • and what you find out is that they are actually imitative.

  • They imitate the political movement that they're drawing from.

  • So they actually don't tell us a lot about decision-making

  • in that particular case.

  • So we have to teach ourselves to ask a totally different question.

  • Instead of "Why?" we have to ask "How?"

  • How did individuals produce these attacks,

  • and how did their decision-making ecology contribute to violent behavior?

  • There's a couple things I've learned from asking this kind of question.

  • The most important thing is that

  • political violence is not culturally endemic.

  • We create it.

  • And whether we realize it or not,

  • our day-to-day habits contribute to the creation of violence

  • in our environment.

  • So here's a couple of habits that I've learned contribute to violence.

  • One of the first things that attackers did

  • when preparing themselves for a violent event

  • was they enclosed themselves in an information bubble.

  • We've heard of fake news, yeah?

  • Well, this shocked me:

  • every group that I studied had some kind of a fake news slogan.

  • French communists called it the "putrid press."

  • French ultranationalists called it the "sellout press"

  • and the "treasonous press."

  • Islamists in Egypt called it the "depraved news."

  • And Egyptian communists called it ...

  • "fake news."

  • So why do groups spend all this time trying to make these information bubbles?

  • The answer is actually really simple.

  • We make decisions based on the information we trust, yeah?

  • So if we trust bad information,

  • we're going to make bad decisions.

  • Another interesting habit that individuals used

  • when they wanted to produce a violent attack

  • was that they looked at their victim not as an individual

  • but just as a member of an opposing team.

  • Now this gets really weird.

  • There's some fun brain science behind why that kind of thinking is effective.

  • Say I divide all of you guys into two teams:

  • blue team,

  • red team.

  • And then I ask you to compete in a game against each other.

  • Well, the funny thing is, within milliseconds,

  • you will actually start experiencing pleasure -- pleasure --

  • when something bad happens to members of the other team.

  • The funny thing about that is if I ask one of you blue team members

  • to go and join the red team,

  • your brain recalibrates,

  • and within milliseconds,

  • you will now start experiencing pleasure

  • when bad things happen to members of your old team.

  • This is a really good example of why us-them thinking is so dangerous

  • in our political environment.

  • Another habit that attackers used to kind of rev themselves up for an attack

  • was they focused on differences.

  • In other words, they looked at their victims, and they thought,

  • "I share nothing in common with that person.

  • They are totally different than me."

  • Again, this might sound like a really simple concept,

  • but there's some fascinating science behind why this works.

  • Say I show you guys videos of different-colored hands

  • and sharp pins being driven into these different-colored hands,

  • OK?

  • If you're white,

  • the chances are you will experience the most sympathetic activation,

  • or the most pain,

  • when you see a pin going into the white hand.

  • If you are Latin American, Arab, Black,

  • you will probably experience the most sympathetic activation

  • watching a pin going into the hand that looks most like yours.

  • The good news is, that's not biologically fixed.

  • That is learned behavior.

  • Which means the more we spend time with other ethnic communities

  • and the more we see them as similar to us and part of our team,

  • the more we feel their pain.

  • The last habit that I'm going to talk about

  • is when attackers prepared themselves to go out and do one of these events,

  • they focused on certain emotional cues.

  • For months, they geared themselves up by focusing on anger cues, for instance.

  • I bring this up because it's really popular right now.

  • If you read blogs or the news,

  • you see talk of two concepts from laboratory science:

  • amygdala hijacking and emotional hijacking.

  • Now, amygdala hijacking:

  • it's the concept that I show you a cue -- say, a gun --

  • and your brain reacts with an automatic threat response

  • to that cue.

  • Emotional hijacking -- it's a very similar concept.

  • It's the idea that I show you an anger cue, for instance,

  • and your brain will react with an automatic anger response

  • to that cue.

  • I think women usually get this more than men. (Laughs)

  • (Laughter)

  • That kind of a hijacking narrative grabs our attention.

  • Just the word "hijacking" grabs our attention.

  • The thing is,

  • most of the time, that's not really how cues work in real life.

  • If you study history,

  • what you find is that we are bombarded with hundreds of thousands of cues

  • every day.

  • And so what we do is we learn to filter.

  • We ignore some cues,

  • we pay attention to other cues.

  • For political violence, this becomes really important,

  • because what it meant is that attackers usually didn't just see an anger cue

  • and suddenly snap.

  • Instead,

  • politicians, social activists spent weeks, months, years

  • flooding the environment with anger cues, for instance,

  • and attackers,

  • they paid attention to those cues,

  • they trusted those cues,

  • they focused on them,

  • they even memorized those cues.

  • All of this just really goes to show how important it is to study history.

  • It's one thing to see how cues operate in a laboratory setting.

  • And those laboratory experiments are incredibly important.

  • They give us a lot of new data about how our bodies work.

  • But it's also very important to see how those cues operate in real life.

  • So what does all this tell us about political violence?

  • Political violence is not culturally endemic.

  • It is not an automatic, predetermined response to environmental stimuli.

  • We produce it.

  • Our everyday habits produce it.

  • Let's go back, actually, to those two women that I mentioned at the start.

  • The first woman had been paying attention to those outrage campaigns,

  • so she took a gun

  • and approached a soldier at a checkpoint.

  • But in that moment, something really interesting happened.

  • She looked at that soldier,

  • and she thought to herself,

  • "He's the same age as me.

  • He looks like me."

  • And she put down the gun, and she walked away.

  • Just from that little bit of similarity.

  • The second girl had a totally different outcome.

  • She also listened to the outrage campaigns,

  • but she surrounded herself with individuals

  • who were supportive of violence,

  • with peers who supported her violence.

  • She enclosed herself in an information bubble.

  • She focused on certain emotional cues for months.

  • She taught herself to bypass certain cultural inhibitions against violence.

  • She practiced her plan,

  • she taught herself new habits,

  • and when the time came, she took her bomb to the café,

  • and she followed through with that attack.

  • This was not impulse.

  • This was learning.

  • Polarization in our society is not impulse,

  • it's learning.

  • Every day we are teaching ourselves:

  • the news we click on,

  • the emotions that we focus on,

  • the thoughts that we entertain about the red team or the blue team.

  • All of this contributes to learning,

  • whether we realize it or not.

  • The good news

  • is that while the individuals I study already made their decisions,

  • we can still change our trajectory.

  • We might never make the decisions that they made,

  • but we can stop contributing to violent ecologies.

  • We can get out of whatever news bubble we're in,

  • we can be more mindful about the emotional cues

  • that we focus on,

  • the outrage bait that we click on.

  • But most importantly,

  • we can stop seeing each other as just members of the red team

  • or the blue team.

  • Because whether we are Christian, Muslim, Jewish, atheist,

  • Democrat or Republican,

  • we're human.