The Social Brain: How Diversity Made the Modern Mind by Richard Crisp

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Reviewed by Anne Goodwin

The Social Brain

In the decades following the end of the Second World War, social psychology was preoccupied with an attempt to explain how ordinary people could commit such terrible atrocities against Jews, Roma and other minority groups. This period generated the famous obedience experiments whereby Milgram  and his associates found that people were willing to deliver painful electric shocks to another citizen if instructed to do so by a powerful authority figure. Less dramatically, but equally counterintuitively, Tajfel and his team found that, when people were instructed to allocate points anonymously to members of two arbitrarily constructed groups, they consistently rewarded members of their own group more than the other. Prejudice, discrimination and, in certain conditions, outright cruelty, it seemed, were not solely the province of the Nazis.

A cursory glance at current socio-politics suggests grounds for a similar pessimistic view of human nature. Yet, alongside increased inequalities, the rise of the far right and Islamophobia, we see societies becoming increasingly diverse and tolerant of difference. So is humankind inherently prone to hostility towards the outgroup, or are we programmed to cooperate too? British social psychologist, Richard Crisp, believes the latter to be a better fit with the data. Furthermore, he asserts that diversity lies at the root of our intellectual evolution and is an essential ingredient of creativity, innovation and growth.

In this slim volume, Crisp reviews the literature on intergroup psychology and social cognition that reveal us to be “cognitive misers” ever searching for meaning and causality but relying on stereotypes and shortcuts rather than systematically sieving the evidence in a truly scientific manner. Our ability to speedily categorise people and things as good versus bad, us versus them, creates a sense of stability and predictability in a turbulent world. Furthermore, it has an evolutionary advantage: we’re more likely to survive as a species if we can easily identify, and take steps to eliminate, potential sources of harm.

Thus evolutionary psychologists have proposed that the human brain has evolved to be specifically sensitive to outgroup threats. But this cannot account for those occasions when we choose to cooperate. We all know intuitively and, with over 500 studies based on Allport’s contact hypothesis, research also shows that prejudice disappears when we associate with members of an outgroup on equal terms. With his Evolutionary Contact Hypothesis, Crisp argues that the sudden surge in human intelligence observed in the anthropological record about 100,000 years ago that laid the basis for modern civilisation occurred through our ability to override the brain’s automatic tendency to categorise difference as a threat and build coalitions. We might be more adapted to make peace than war.

Citing research demonstrating that bilingual and bicultural people are more flexible and creative in their thinking, Crisp assures us diversity is good for our brains. Yet we don’t always do what’s good for us. He argues that the way to turn off the threat-system and engage the coalition-brain system is through prospection, the ability to imagine scenarios different to how they currently are. Stemming from this, his own research has shown that imagined positive contact can improve attitudes, increase the intention to engage with outgroup members, increase confidence in intercultural communication ability and reduce non-verbal markers of anxiety. The more elaborate and vivid the imagined contact, the stronger the effect.

Crisp proposes that diversity training should be built around the principles of prospection. But imagined contact alone is unlikely to be sufficient for long-term behavioural change. He speculates that structured intercultural contact, that is immersive, engaging and challenging, trains the brain to be more flexible and creative. According to his developmental model, the ensuing facility of impulse control has the potential to enhance health, decision-making and relationships at all levels.

The jargon-free language, clear descriptions of the relevant research and chapter summaries make Professor Crisp’s thesis easy to follow. However, although it does not detract from his argument, I was a little surprised that an eminent psychologist should fall into the trap of conflating punishment (as defined by operant conditioning) with negative reinforcement (p25). I was also interested, albeit not particularly surprised, that in a book that acknowledges a debt to Freud (p5) there was no mention of subsequent object relations theory which is entirely consistent with the view that the mature, adaptive state of mind is one in which we are able to tolerate ambivalence.

The Social Brain is good news for anyone trying to combat prejudice on empirical as well as ethical grounds. With its emphasis on the importance of prospection, Crisp’s thesis is in keeping with the recent report from the Reading Agency that reading for pleasure enhances empathy and social cohesion and the pledge from book bloggers to read more authors from black and ethnic minority backgrounds.

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A former clinical psychologist, Anne Goodwin blogs about reading and writing with a peppering of psychology at Annecdotal. She is committed to creating diverse characters in her fiction. Her debut novel, Sugar and Snails, about a woman who has kept her past identity a secret for thirty years, was reviewed by Victoria on Shiny New Books.

Richard Crisp, The Social Brain: How Diversity Made the Modern Mind (Robinson: London, 2015). 978-1-47212-023-6, 171pp., paperback.

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