The 50th anniversary of the TV show Star Trek‘s first broadcast is today. It was a formative franchise for me growing up, informing many of my first ideas about space exploration, heroism, and a collaborative society. Debates redound about the best episode of the series. However, I agree with Business Insider’s choice of the episode Balance of Terror. It’s essentially a space version of submarine warfare, for which I’ve been a sucker ever since the game Red Storm Rising for the Commodore 64. This episode has everything: Lore building of the political and technological history of the Federation, the introduction of a new opponent, a glimpse of life on the lower decks, and character development galore for multiple cast members – including a guest star.
One of the moments that always stuck with me was one in the Captain’s quarters as the Enterprise and its Romulan counterpart wait each other out in silence. Dr. McCoy comes to speak with Captain Kirk, who expresses a rare moment of self-doubt regarding his decisions during tactical combat. The doctor’s compassionate nature comes through as he reminds the captain how across 3 million Earth-like planets that might exist, recapitulated across 3 million million galaxies, there’s only one of each of us – and not to destroy the one named Kirk. The lesson of that moment resonates 50 years later and is one I like to revisit when I feel myself beset by doubts about myself or my career.
Another moment I appreciate is the imperfection allowed in Spock’s character without being under the influence of spores, temporal vortices, or other sci-fi contrivances. Already, he has been accused of being a Romulan spy by a bigoted member of the crew who lost multiple family members in a war with the Romulans decades before visual communication was possible. Now, Spock breaks the silence under which the Enterprise was operating with a clumsy grip on the console he is repairing. Is this the action of a spy? Or just an errant mistake that anyone could make, especially when under heightened scrutiny?
Indeed, this error might be expected when Mr. Spock operates under stereotype threat. Just hours earlier, he was revealed to share striking physiological similarities with the Romulan enemies, who Spock described as possible warrior offshoots of the Vulcan race before Vulcans embraced logic. This revelation caused Lt. Stiles, who had branches of his family wiped out in the prior war with the Romulans, to view Spock with distrust and outright bigotry that was so blatant that the captain called him on it on the bridge. Still, Stiles’s prejudice against Spock is keenly displayed throughout the episode, making it more likely that Spock would conform to the sabotaging behavior expected of him by his bridgemate.
On their own ship, the sneaky and cunning Romulans were not depicted as mere stereotypes of those adjectives but instead as a richly developed martial culture. Their commander and his centurion have a deep bond that extends over a hundred campaigns; the regard these two have for each other is highlighted in the actors’ subtle inflections and camaraderie. The internal politics of the Romulan empire are detailed through select lines of dialog surrounding the character of Decius and the pique that character elicits in his commander. In the end, the Romulan commander is shown to be sensitive to the demands of his culture and his subordinates in the culminating action of the episode, though the conflict between these and his own plans is palpable.
The contrast between Romulans and Spock highlights how alien Vulcan logic seems to everyone else. Spock is a character who represents the outsider, the one struggling for acceptance among an emotional human crew even as he struggles to maintain his culture’s logical discipline. Authors with autism have even remarked how Spock helped them understand how they perceive the world differently from neurotypicals in a highly logical fashion. However, given the emotional militarism of the Romulans, I believe that Vulcan logic is a strongly culturally conditioned behavior rather than a reflection of fundamental differences in baseline neurobiological processing.
There are neurobiological differences in sustained attention to different kinds of objects in autism compared to neurotypical controls. Work I did in collaboration with Gabriel Dichter has demonstrated that individuals with autism spectrum disorders have heightened attention to objects of high interest to these individuals (e.g., trains, computers) compared to faces, whereas neurotypicals show the opposite pattern of attention (access here). Based on decades of cultural influence, Mr. Spock might be expected to show equal attention to objects and faces, but Dr. McCoy, Captain Kirk, and the Romulans all would be expected to be exquisitely sensitive to faces, as they convey a lot of information about the social world.
As the heat of summer washes over the country, basic home safety becomes a concern. Sometimes, parents become worried that their messy houses might cause Child Protective Services to view them as unfit parents. A new paper from my research collaborators and I has shown that even in homes with genuine safety concerns, the beauty of a home (or lack thereof) isn’t associated with being child abuse potential or socioeconomic status. Thus, it doesn’t appear that messy homes come from abusive parenting environments, and unattractive or unsafe are just as likely to be found in poorer and richer neighborhoods.
We found that trained assessors and people inhabiting homes had reasonable agreement about the beauty of the homes, but they didn’t agree on the safety risks present in the home. Part of that may have been because the trained assessors had checklists with over 50 items to check over in each room to assess safety and appearance, whereas the occupants of the homes only provided summary ratings of room safety and appearance on a 1-6 scale. It’s probably easier to give an overall judgment of the attractiveness of a room than to summarize in your mind all the possible safety risks that exist.
Because it’s so hard to notice these safety risks without a detailed guide, the assessment we developed can also be used as a way to point parents to specific things to fix in the home to make their children’s environment safer. We didn’t want people overwhelmed when thinking about what to clean up or make safer – rather, we wanted to give people specific things to address. We’ll be interested to see if people are better able to make their homes cleaner and safer places with the help of that assessment.
Empathy is a multifaceted beast, and it can get us into trouble when social upheavals strike.
There’s a bunch of measures of empathy, but many of them make a distinction between cognitive empathy (being able to think like someone else) and emotional or affective empathy (being able to feel like someone else). Within cognitive empathy, we often speak of perspective taking (the ability to put yourself and potentially adopt in another’s mindset) as a critical skill. In contrast, we often talk about empathic concern (feeling sympathy with or concern for those less fortunate) as an important part of emotional empathy.
When confronted with tragedy, we often extend empathic concern toward those most like us. This concern is associated with experiencing the same patterns of brain activity when seeing someone else (who is similar to you, or part of your ingroup) feeling sad as when feeling sad yourself. However, this isn’t typically the case for people who aren’t similar to you, or those who are part of your outgroup. Even chimpanzees have a hard time empathizing with other primates who aren’t chimpanzees. In fact, it’s often the opposite.
Specifically, people in your outgroup who also seem to have the capability to harm your ingroup are more likely to elicit smiles when they’re hurt and to be more likely to be volunteered to receive electric shocks. But how do we know who’s likely to harm people like you – your ingroup? Though researchers have sometimes used culturally normative definitions of such people in their work, I would argue it’s important to examine people’s own beliefs to assess this notion. For instance, the rising notion of “black privilege” suggests that whites have myriad opportunities stripped from them on account of racial preference. Conversely, lists of ways to avoid being killed by police circulate in the black community.
With such threats to different kinds of ingroups believed to be posed by specific outgroups, it’s extraordinarily hard to engage in emotional empathy with “the other side”, let alone engage in cognitive empathy. Going through the work of taking another person’s perspective isn’t likely when that person feels like a threat instead of someone with whom you might cooperate. To empathize with people who are different from us, we may have to take a view of all humanity as our ingroup. However, there are large individual differences in the ability to do this, and when one feels under threat, such radical empathy poses even bigger challenges. Even if such things could be taught, there appear to be interactions between genes and hormones related to empathy. Those who are more likely to empathize with their ingroups are more likely to be receptive to oxytocin (which is a hormone that’s more associated with ingroup bonding than universal connectedness), whereas those less receptive to oxytocin are willing to harm members of the outgroup to the degree their brains “want” to harm the outgroup.
So, what can we do to help empathy build between groups who view each other as threatening? Shared suffering may be the answer, coming together over shared tragedies to let pain bind closed the wounds of humanity. Failing that, empathic listening to both sides may also help, allowing people to express their pain or fears without judgment or defensiveness. In the wake of last week’s tragic shootings of two black men and five police officers, a black man offered free hugs outside the Dallas police department headquarters. The Dallas police themselves guarded the people’s right to protest peacefully. Perhaps emotional empathy can give rise to cognitive empathy.
Empathy is a challenge to us all, and it may have untoward consequences if we only exercise it toward those we perceive to be like us. In my own experience, I grew up playing the Police Quest series of games, and the narratives that Jim Walls spun affected me viscerally, allowing me to peer inside a cop’s life in a way that sticks with me still. Conversely, working at the Walk-In Counseling Center allowed me to hear the stories of people who grew up with very different racial and socioeconomic backgrounds in ways I’d never experienced before and moderated my political beliefs. But each of these took years of work to fully set in for me, to let me see what both sides might be thinking – yet recognizing that my own empathy will be forever incomplete as a result of living outside of both black and police worlds. Society will not heal quickly from these wounds, and more than just emotional empathy will be necessary to do so.