A Blog by Jonathan Low


Jan 13, 2021

The Neuroscience of Hate

The emotions on display during expressions of rage are genetically implanted. 

The difference is that most humans manage to control them. JL

Dana Smith reports in Elemental:

Hatred toward another group is an extension of the human tendency to classify “us” from “them.” “Hate is a mixing of intense dislike with moral contempt. Violence [is] to make a better, more just world for that which I hold most dear.” Hate and violence are not the result of sociopathic tendencies but the culmination of perceiving an existential threat to one’s in-group. In-group/out-group categorizations when paired with negative stereotypes, activates the amygdala (fear) and dampens the medial prefrontal cortex (empathy). People who identified as alt-right scored higher on narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy associated with selfish, exploitative, and aggressive tendencies.

Last Wednesday was a dark day for the United States. I’m obviously not a political reporter, so I’m not going to talk about security breaches or the future of our democracy or just how terrifying and disgraceful what happened at the Capitol was (you should check out our sister publication GEN for those types of stories). But I am going to discuss what might have been going on in the brains of those who attempted the insurrection.

Your brain, feeling hateful

Hatred and violence toward another group of people is an extension — and perversion — of our natural human tendency to classify “us” from “them.” Evolutionarily, group membership and the cooperation it facilitates was essential for human survival. Our species forms alliances easily, sometimes based on genetic or familial ties but sometimes more arbitrarily. Take affinity for a certain sports team; it says nothing about a person’s qualities and offers no real benefits, and yet people have literally killed opposing team’s fans.

In-group/out-group categorizations are made almost instantaneously in the brain and, when paired with negative stereotypes, can result in feelings of fear, disgust, and dehumanization. Studies have shown that viewing pictures of people from a different race, for example, activates the amygdala — a brain region strongly implicated in fear. Seeing or thinking about an out-group like people who are unhoused or who use drugs can also dampen activity in the medial prefrontal cortex, an area associated with social cognition and empathy. This deactivation contributes to feelings of dehumanization — seeing the other group as less than human, which in turn leads to an increased risk for violence.

Other research has studied hate on an individual level. Neuroscientists in England found that looking at a picture of someone you hate triggers activity in four brain regions that they dubbed the “hate circuit.” It includes areas that process feelings of disgust (the insula) as well as regions important for planning, decision-making, and initiating aggressive behavior (the putamen, frontal cortex, and premotor cortex). The researchers hypothesize that activity in these areas indicate that the brain is primed for violence.

MIT cognitive neuroscientist Rebecca Saxe says that violence between groups can arise when resources are deemed to be limited. In those situations, protecting your own group and its resources at the expense of another group, even if it means physical harm, is seen as necessary. And when the resources at stake are not commodities but existential ideals and fundamental values, feelings of hate for the opposing group can emerge.

In a talk she gave at Harvard last year, Saxe said, “If we think that the survival, autonomy, and dignity of our ideals is a scarce resource in a zero-sum conflict with the survival, autonomy, and dignity of another group, then it could be my obligation to destroy the other group.” An example of a zero-sum conflict with existential ideals at stake? An election determining who holds power in government.

Saxe continues, “Hate is a mixing of both intense dislike with moral contempt and disgust. The moral motive of extreme violence in which the other must be destroyed [is] to make a better, more just world for that which I hold most dear.” To Saxe, hate and violence are not the result of sociopathic tendencies but the extreme culmination of perceiving an existential threat to one’s in-group.

Finally, hearing hate speech, like the kind spouted by President Donald Trump, can increase prejudice toward an out-group and even prime the brain for violent actions. In an article for The Conversation, Arizona State University psychologist Arthur Glenberg writes, “Words themselves are enough to trigger simulations in motor, perceptual and emotional neural systems. Your brain creates a sense of being there: The motor system is primed for action and the emotional system motivates those actions.”

This made me think of the dark triad

Okay, so losing the election, feeling that their worldview was threatened, and having that message repeated to them triggered the hate and violence among the (mostly) white men who stormed the Capitol last week. But attempting a violent coup, planning to assassinate members of Congress, and murdering a police officer still feels like a monumentally unhinged overreaction to what should be a normal democratic transfer of power, one that’s taken place peacefully 35 times before. Millions took to the streets to protest after Trump was elected in 2016, but they never tried to overthrow the government. So what’s different in these people that pushed them over the edge?

Last year, psychologists Patrick Forscher and Nour Kteily published a psychological profile of Trump supporters, including those who were self-proclaimed members of the alt-right. They found that they were more prone to racism, sexism, nationalism, authoritarianism, dehumanization of out-groups and a desire for dominance. They also expressed concern about discrimination toward white people and men, confirming Saxe’s theory that they perceive there to be a threat toward themselves and their way of life. People who identified as alt-right also scored higher on the dark triad, a cluster of personality traits — narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy — associated with selfish, exploitative, and aggressive tendencies.

Does this all explain what happened last week? Maybe; I don’t know. One thing I do know, though, is it certainly doesn’t excuse it.


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