Speaker Insight Series: Mina Cikara

How do people overcome their aversion to harm in order to hurt others? This question guides the work of Mina Cikara, Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University and one of our 2015 Fall speakers. As individuals, we have a strong drive to be fair, to share resources equitably and to avoid hurting others. Even in war, people are fundamentally averse to harming others and modern-day humanity is the most peaceful it has ever been in its history. Life is no longer nasty, brutish, and short.

And yet violence and aggression persist.

Mina CikaraMina argues that this shift in human behaviors occurs when we stop thinking about “me and you” and start thinking about “us and them.” Group living is the source of humanity’s greatest triumphs, but also its greatest tragedies. On one hand, we reap numerous material and psychological benefits from being able to identify and cooperate with fellow group members. On the other hand, group life produces pressure to conform within those groups, and intractable conflict between them.   

Social groups change how people behave because they change people’s expectations of what’s appropriate; they cause us to lose touch with the moral compasses that otherwise guide our behaviors. Think about Ferguson and how wearing riot gear and treating a group of peaceful protestors like an angry mob could create that angry mob.

As most of us have experienced, it is extremely difficult to turn inward and check our behavior in the heat of the moment. Similarly, it is difficult to study how and why people lose touch with their moral compasses when they act as a member of a group. Mina’s group is using a unique multi-method approach to study how these processes unfold within the mind and brain. Her talk will focus on her idea to shift the focus away from what we can’t control (them) to what we can control (ourselves). It makes it easier to break the cycle of conflict that may ultimately lead to violence and brutality.