Robert Sapolsky - How Science Influences Culture and Politics in "Behave" - Extended Interview

Extended - May 4, 2017 - Robert Sapolsky 05/04/2017 Views: 73,451

Robert Sapolsky weighs in on the archaic neuroscience behind the criminal justice system and explains how the brain's wiring impacts political beliefs in his book "Behave." (9:59)

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Please welcome Robert Sapolsky.

(applause and cheering)


-Welcome to the show, Professor.-Thank you.

What I've always enjoyedabout you--

uh, we met a while ago--

was that you looklike a professor.


I like that.

-It was a requirement.-Yeah.


You've got a professor face.I enjoy that about you.

And what a timeto have you on.

Let's talk about this book--

Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and at Our Worst.

This was ten years.

This book took youten years to write.

And despite being a pessimist,you have confessed

that you've learned whatgives you optimism is basically

that there is an ideathat we can learn

about how to betterthe human condition,

how we can get human beingsto do the right thing,

as opposed to the wrong thing.

How did you getto that conclusion?

Well, I thinkthe starting point is...

You know, we're a miserablyviolent species,

but at the same time,

we're alsoan extraordinarily altruistic

and compassionate one.

And the main thingthat sort of gets at it is,

it really depends on context.

'Cause in one setting,you fire a gun,

-and it's like the mostappalling act possible. -Right.

And in another, it's heroicand self-sacrificial.

You put your handon top of someone else's,

and that could bedeeply compassionate,

or that could bea deep betrayal.

Our behavior's incrediblycontext-dependent.

In other words,if you get the context right,

we're a whole lot nicerof a species

than we are an awful lotof the time.

What does that meanfor humans as a whole, though?

Because if we go, we are niceand it depends on the context,

does that meanthat in some context,

Donald Trump is a nice person?

-No. No.-Oh, it's... -(laughter)

-(applause and cheering)-Oh, okay. Okay.

That's, uh...

-What does that...?-On the average.

-On the average. I like that.-Yes.

I like how you're like,"Nope, nope, nope.

Nope, nope, not at all."

Um, what does that meanfor us as people, though,

if you're trying to decipher us?

Because, I mean, I've readthrough most of the book,

and what's tough to understandis what it means.

You know,some people have arguments

that I read all the timewhere they go,

"Well, you know, some peopleare genetically predisposed

-to committing crime."-Right.

And people always use thatas a dog whistle for racism.

They go, "Well, you know, blackpeople like to commit crimes,

and that's whatthey're always going to do."

As somebodywho studies neuroscience

and the biology of it all,does that make any sense?

Um, that's right around whenyou get apoplexy over, like...

"Oh, come on.

What centuryare you functioning in?"

I mean, in termsof genes and behavior,

genes don't cause behaviors,genes don't determine behaviors,

-Right. -'cause genes workincredibly differently

in different environments.

And it basicallyat the end of the day

winds up being uselessto ask what a gene does.

What does it doin the particular environments

in which it's been studied?

What does that meanfor the U.S. system?

Let's go into the book.

You talk about howthe criminal justice system,

for instance,in America is broken,

in a way thatI've never thought of before,

and that is-- the neuroscienceof it is broken.

What... what does that mean?

Well, sort of the coreof the American legal system,

in terms of thinking about,like, how the brain works,

is basically, if you'reso organically impaired

by some brain disease thatyou can't tell the difference

-between right and wrong,-Yeah.

that's a pretty good mitigatingcircumstance in a trial.

And that's something calledthe McNaughton rule.

-Uh-huh.-Gold standard.

McNaughton was a guy

who almost certainly wasa paranoid schizophrenic,

who attempted to killthe prime minister of England

because of the voiceshe was hearing, in 1840.

That's it.That's the neuroscience

that the legal system has, uh,sort of absorbed since 1840.

I mean, 1840, like,people hadn't even figured out

test tubesor Bunsen burners yet.

That's it-- the legal systemis based on neuroscience

that's about 170 years old.

But what does that meanfor today's legal system, then?

(laughs): Well,you're dealing with a system

that is... medieval in itsknowledge of human behavior.

-Right.-I mean, probably the realm

where that'smost important is...

sort of issues of volition.

Where you've got plenty ofpeople who know the difference

between right and wrong,yet in a particular moment,

a moment of particular arousal,particular stress,

particularneurological impairment,

nonetheless they do what theyknow to be is the wrong thing.

And that is something,for example,

you would seewhen there's damage

to a part of the braincalled the frontal cortex.

People there-- well,the frontal cortex is, like,

the coolest part of the brain.

It does self-controland emotional regulation,

gratification postponement.

And if your frontal cortexis damaged,

you know the differencebetween right and wrong,

and you say,"I'm gonna reach right here,

because this hasthe better payoff,"

and at the last secondyou go for the wrong one.

Were you grabbing the pussythere? What were you doing?


I didn't know what that-that...

That seems like it.You know what's wrong,

and then grab for that.

Please, sir, I'm a professor.


Forgive me.Grabbing the vagina.

-I apologize.-(laughter)

Um... America isvery politically polarized

at this point.

And in the book...

you talk about how...

uh, scientifically,you've discovered,

or, you know,the research has shown,

that America's at a point

where progressivesand conservatives

actually have brainsthat are wired differently?

Yeah, which either countsas, like, "Duh, you think?"

Or is very informative

in that it's got nothing to do,a lot of the time,

with, sort of, the issues thatone would think are going on

in people's heads when theycome up with political stances.

Instead, things like,on the average,

social conservatives are mademore anxious by novelty

than are social progressives.

They're made more anxiousby ambiguity.

They're made more anxious

by whatever is comingin the future.

On the average,social conservatives

are more worriedabout germs and hygiene.

You look in the bathroom

of social conservativesversus progressives,

and the former have morecleaning items in there.

So Democrats are like,(bleep) washing my hands,

and conservatives are like,wipe twice.

Right, at least.

Before and after, yes.

And, and sorry, sir.

That is such an extreme ideabecause it's frightening.

Because it makes me then go,are you saying that in America

there is a possibilitythat it will get to a place

where people are no longerpolitically making decisions,

but rather reacting towho they are as human beings?

Well, I kind of thinkthat's always the case.

There is just--we're biological organisms.

There is biology rumbling alongin us all the time.

And here's a findingin that realm,

it's just like one of myfavorite studies

in the whole book.

You take somebodyand sit them down,

and you give thema questionnaire

-about their political stances.-Yes.

And if they're sitting in a roomwith a smelly garbage can,

people become morepolitically conservative

about social issues.

Doesn't change your politicsabout economics,

or the, like, trade balancewith Nepal, or any such thing.

But if are you're kind of havinga part of your brain

that tells you that somethingsmells kind of unnerving

and disgusting,you are more likely to decide

that somebody else's lifestyle

is not only different,but wrong and disgusting.

So is it possible thatRepublicans in America

have a smell around themall the time?

Um... maybe.

But what they do have,what the studies show is,

on the average once again,social conservatives

have a lower thresholdfor gag reflexes.

Things make them more disgustedthan conservatives do.

You know, it-it's actuallysort of fascinating

how this worksneurobiologically.

There's this part of the braincalled the insula.

And you take your basicrun of the mill mammal,

and if it bites into, like,some disgusting toxic food,

the insula activatesand reflexes--

-you retch, you gag,you spit it out. -Right.

It's like, great, you don't getpoisoned by rotten food.

Same thing in humans.

But now, instead, take a humanand have him tell you

about something totally rottenthey did to somebody else once.

Or tell them about somebodyelse's appalling rotten act

and the insular cortexactivates.

And in us, it's also evolvedto handle moral disgust.

And thus, if it's somethinghorrifying enough,

we feel sick to our stomach.

We feel queasy.

We're left with a bad tastein our mouth.

We feel soiled by it,

we feel "washing out damn spot"sort of thing.

That we have a brainthat somehow evolved

to do the literal disgustthat's gustatory,

and disgust that's thismetaphorical, moral--

And it has troubletelling them apart,

because it's onlyabout 50,000 years or so

that humans have come up withthis bizarre thing

of having moral rulesthat could be violated.

This is-- I'm just gonnago away from this

with Republicans have a smellaround them all the time.

Thank you so much for beingon the show, Professor.


Behave is available now.

Robert Sapolsky, everybody.

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