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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