We too often turn to insulting people’s brain power – and that closes off our ability to understand others, argues Melanie Challenger
24 February 2021
BELITTLING the minds of others is commonplace. Stupid! Brainless! Imbecile! Dozy! Just scroll through the comments on pretty much any contentious article and you will find criticism by mental slander. Social media is littered with words like “unthinking” and “idiot”, especially when people are confronted with views with which they disagree.
Indeed, Twitter is a lightning rod of prejudices about minds. Former US president Donald Trump was perhaps the kingpin here, before Twitter banned him. Not only did he routinely boast of his own mental prowess – “sorry losers and haters, but my I.Q. is one of the highest” – but he persistently used mental slurs to silence critics: “dummy!”.
Yet we can all be guilty of mental slander. Right-wing supporters frequently call those on the left “libtards”. Meanwhile, according to the Oxford English Dictionary’s New Monitor Corpus, conservative voters in the US are often derided as “nutjobs”. Mental slurs are a fast and simple trick to silence an unwanted voice and to lower trust in evidence we resist. A growing body of research is allowing us to understand where this prejudice comes from.
Humans are group-living animals. Probing and judging other minds is a part of how we coordinate with each other, cooperate and make and break alliances. By the age of 5, children make assumptions about people’s mental states, such as understanding that someone can be mistaken in their beliefs. Particular parts of the brain are implicated: the medial prefrontal cortex, the temporal poles and the posterior superior temporal sulcus. These work in concert to enable us to detect and make judgements about minds – both our own and those of others.
All this doesn’t stop at the neck. When we bond in a group – whether that is with kin or co-workers, friends or football fans – our bodies produce hormones like oxytocin that play a role in bringing us together. But, as psychologist Carsten De Dreu points out, these hormones don’t just unite us; they encourage exclusivity. This – directly or indirectly – can alter our views on other minds. In effect, we believe those in our group more readily, often exaggerating the mental abilities of those with whom we feel allegiance.
What follows from this is that we can undervalue the intelligence of those whose views differ from our own. Even more troubling, we can find ourselves responding more slowly to signals of emotion or experience from outsiders. Social psychologists Susan Fiske and Lasana Harris have used neurological imaging and behaviour studies to show that we shut down the medial prefrontal cortex, which is involved in social cognition, when confronted with minds we wish to ignore. When we suspend parts of our brain key to recognising another’s mental and emotional states, we not only close our minds to one another, we cease to care.
All this has real-world consequences for whom we listen to and whose voices we trust. In an age of political polarisation and misinformation, the echo chambers created by social media do more than just seal us off from diverse possibilities and points of view; they muffle our ability to care about those whose views we might not like.
What can we do about it? First, we need to recognise the biases that prevent us from keeping one another in mind. We must make it less socially acceptable to use mental slander in the service of an argument. Beyond this, we would benefit from greater opportunities to hear one another out.
This pandemic is a reminder that we have very few mechanisms for listening and deliberating together. That needs to change. But a more radical option lies in a much larger paradigm shift. Is it time for our species to stop using the idea of own superior cognition as validation?
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