Emotional Resilience Blog from The Fear Course

The latest research, realisations and thinking in the world of emotional resilience, anxiety and fear reduction from around the world.

Why task focus can cause a lack of empathy: Soldiers, bullies, criminals and emotional literacy

Why task focus can cause a lack of empathy: Soldiers, bullies, criminals and emotional literacy

Following on from the other blogs in this series looking at emotional literacy; Emotional Literacy: what it is and it's role in bullying both in school and the workplace and How the Gruffalo develops emotional literacy, emotional intelligence and emotion regulation, I want to look at what happens when we get task focussed.

A series of studies have shown links between crime and the level of ability of the individual to be able to empathise. The issue is if we don't have empathy with others then abuse is easy. It is usually our empathy that is the basis of our morality and codes of ethics. the fact that you probably wouldn't put a real gun to someones head and pull the trigger has more to do with empathy than having learned it is wrong by rote. The ability to kill or abuse for example usually requires some form of objectification or dehumanisation first. This can be because of a lack of emotional literacy and emotional intelligence, due to training or just simply being focussed on a end goal or task.

During World War 2 the historian S.L.A. Marshall conducted a study of combat troops which showed that in combat only about 15-25% of combat troops actually fired a weapon with the intention to kill even when they were under fire themselves. As a result of this and other studies military training was changed to improve what is known as the 'kill ratio' by having the soldiers objectify or dehumanize 'the enemy' and having them focus on the task and skills of killing r operating the machinery of killing.

Earlier this year (2013) a study was published in the journal Neuroimage which showed the pathways of dehumanisation and objectification - called the task positive network (TPN) or Task Related Network (TRN). There are two networks in the brain come into play when we are either empathising or objectifying. The first network operates when a person is focussed on internal processes, such as recognising our own feelings or self-referential thought like empathy called the Default Mode Network (DMN). When a person is focussed on action or carrying out tasks without reference to their emotions the area of the brain which is operating is the Task Positive Network (TPN).

In two studies published earlier this year researchers from the Department of Cognitive Science, Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, US found that when when an individual is dehumanising or objectifying others the Default Mode Network (DMN) shows lower levels of activity and the Task Positive Network (TPN) shows higher levels of activity.

It would appear from a series of studies that the TPN and DMN work like a see-saw. When we are focussed on a task or achieving a goal the activity in the DMN reduces and vice versa. Task focus can produce a lack of empathy if the individual doesn't check back inside.
It would appear that people who lack the capabilities inherent in emotional literacy are less likely to check internally before acting against another. They objectify others readily, focus on the task (bullying or robbery for example) with little or no recourse to self-referential thought which is the precursor to empathy.

Emotional literacy programmes have been shown to be effective in redressing the balance.

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French, S. E., & Jack, A. I. (in revision). Dehumanizing the Enemy: The Intersection of Neuroethics and Military Ethics. In D. Whetham (Ed.), The Responsibility to Protect: Alternative Perspectives: Martinus Nijhoff. Due in print April 2014

Jack, A. I., Dawson, A. J., & Norr, M. E. (2013). Seeing human: Distinct and overlapping neural signatures associated with two forms of dehumanization. Neuroimage, 79C, 313-328

Marshall S.L.A. (1947) Men Against Fire: The Problem of Battle Command University of Oklahoma Press

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Emotional Literacy: what it is and it's role in bullying both in school and the workplace

Emotional Literacy: what it is and it's role in bullying both in school and the workplace

One of the important concepts in the arena of emotion regulation is that of the lesser well known emotional literacy. Emotional literacy is often confused for emotional intelligence and whilst the two concepts appear to be quite similar there are important differences in their focus.

Emotional literacy really is the process underlying the development of emotional intelligence and emotion regulation.

Emotional literacy is the development of a discreet set of abilities around an individual's or a groups ability to read, interpret, understand their own and particularly others emotions. There is a conscious element here where the individual develops the ability to think accurately about their emotions and in particular can decode and relate to the emotional cues given off by other people. The operative word here is relate. These abilities are the basic requirements for empathy and are needed to learn successful emotion regulation techniques.

Emotional intelligence on the other hand is seen as a general terms which encompasses the whole set of human emotional tools and consciousness including the ability to regulate the emotions. Emotional intelligence is often used as a general overarching concept which can mean a whole range of specific emotional capabilities such as empathy or emotion regulation or the ability to recognise different emotional states depending on the context.

Emotionally literate people pick up on others emotional states and can identify and define their own emotions readily.

Often when helping people learn the skills of emotion regulation and in order to develop emotional resilience one has to take time to first develop the individuals emotional literacy, especially with people from cultures and familiy systems where there is no background of emotional expression or emotional literacy. People from such backgrounds often find it hard to articulate accuratly what is happening to them emotionally and there is evidence to show that such people also find it more dificult to also identify emotions in others and also regulate their own emotions. A study published earlier this year (2013) showed that developing emotional literacy reduced bullying in primary schools and a further study from 2009 showed that pupils with lower levels of emotional literacy were also likely to be victims of bulling.

So both the bully and bullied are more likely to come from the populations with lower levels of emotional literacy.

This is the case both in school and in the workplace. There is a growing amount of evidence to show that emotional literacy / emotional resilience programmes can reduce bullying in schools and the workplace. 



Einarsen, S. et al (eds) (2010) Bullying and Harassment in the Workplace: Developments in Theory, Research, and Practice, Second Edition. CRC Press, 30 Sep 2010

Harris, A (2009) An Investigation of the Relationship between Emotional Literacy and Bullying. Masters by Research thesis, Murdoch University.

Knowlera, C & Fredericksonb, N (2013) Effects of an emotional literacy intervention for students identified with bullying behaviour. Educational Psychology: An International Journal of Experimental Educational Psychology. May 2013.


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