Summary of Mari Fitzduff's Introduction to Neuroscience for the Peacebuilder - Part 2

Heidi Burgess

Guy M. Burgess

July, 2017

You can download this video from Vimeo for offline viewing.


This is the second part of a two-part video series summarizing Mari Fitzduff's monograph entitled An Introduction to Neuroscience for the Peace Builder. In it, I describe Mari's key idea, that there are biological reasons why people tend to think and make decisions the way they do--it is not all socially determined. In addition to the influence of the amygdala, discussed in the first video, this video talks about the influence of the hormone oxytocin, the importance of mirror neurons, and how all of these things and other neuro-biological factors influence how we think, engage in conflict, and make decisions without us even being aware of them.

Discussion Questions: 

The questions that we are posing here relate to both Fitzduff videos (this one and Part 1) as well as Guy's video on Social and Psychological Complexity

Frontiers MOOS Seminar
Home | Syllabus / Other Posts
This Seminar is part of the...

Find out more...

  • What can and should peacebuilders do about the predispositions described in this video?  Particularly,
    • How do we address people's emotional needs as well as their rational interests and needs in our peacebuilding work?
    • How can we work within the constraints of non-rational/emotional thinking, rather than engage in a futile effort to convert all thinking to the rational approach?

Discuss these questions on D16.


Full Transcript

Hi! This is second part of my review of Mari Fitzduff’s Introduction to Neuroscience for The Peacebuilder. You'll remember that this is a monograph that was written in 2015 that argued that people have two ways of thinking, reason and emotion. And we often think that those ways of thinking are equally powerful, or even that reason is, or should be, more powerful than emotions. But neurobiologists and social psychologists have taught us that actually reason is usually much less powerful than emotions. We talked about Jonathan Haidt’s metaphor of the rider and the elephant where the rider appears to be in control, but if anything unexpected happens and the elephant will likely do what it wants to, disregarding the rider’s direction, just as emotions take matters into their own hands, such that emotions have hands.

All of this is due to biology and whether we rely on the prefrontal cortex or the amygdala when we make decisions.  Now onto new stuff. Mari talks about the hormone oxytocin, which affects distinctions between us and them. Oxytocin makes people more generous, more trusting and compassionate and increases our sense of belonging and cooperativeness. So it sounds like it's good -- and it sounds like it would be good if we had more oxytocin, right?

But there’s a problem. Oxytocin also can increase ethnocentrism, suspicion, and rejection of outsiders. So it turns out that humans have evolved for cooperation, but only with some people and not with others.  This again naturally binds us to our in-group and makes us suspicious or fearful of the out-group.

She also talks about mirror neurons, which are linked to our capacity for empathy and the ability to see things from another's point of view.  Our brain responds the same way to our own pain and of the pain of some others. We respond to the pain of others--if we care about the other.
We respond the same way to our children’s pain, to the pain of significant other people in our in group as if it were our own pain. This is part of the unconscious emotional system. 

BUT, when people are in conflict, they tend to turn off the empathetic response towards the other when the other is in pain. They either ignore it or perhaps even take joy in it.

Ironically, within-group bonding seems to reduce a group's capacity to develop bridging relationships and cooperation with the other. So the stronger people are bound to their own group, which conservatives tend to be naturally, biologically, the harder time they have building bridges to the outgroup. This is a significant problem for peacebuilders and one that we have to recognize and deal with effectively.

So what is this matter to peacebuilding? Well, it might change what we try to do and it might change how we do it.  Now this is the one area where I wish Mari would have gone into more detail than she did. She doesn't have a whole lot. But she does have a few ideas here.

One: to review. Predispositions can be changed. The reason that I rejected neuroscience when I first heard about it is I thought that it was saying that there was no way to make people get along, so peacebuilding was completely impossible and not worth trying. Well, I know it has succeeded in the past, and I believe in it.  Plus, my values are such that we have to try, because not trying is incredibly damaging. So I earlier rejected most of the what I now understand and accept because I was confused about the difference between predisposition and predetermination. That's the first thing that peace builders need to be very, very clear about. They are not the same.

Some peacebuilders either intentionally or, more likely, accidentally, try to increase oxytocin in the brains of disputants by creating informal interactions that allow the building of trust. For instance, gift giving, sharing meals, sharing alcohol, at least in limited quantities, sharing of stories, positive physical gestures, good listening, group singing.  These are all tools that peacebuilders will use to build trust.

And it turns out that neurobiologists have figured out that all of these things increase oxytocin, and thereby increase the tendency to bond with the other and to cooperate.  Dialogue does the same thing. It can actually change the neural circuits that are concerned with identity differences.

There are likely many other things we can do as well, although Mari doesn't have the space to talk about them in this monograph. Bottom-line, we need to consider the importance of emotion as well as reason and design our peacebuilding interventions accordingly.

Mari's conclusion is that she hopes that if peacebuilders gain a greater appreciation about how our genetic and physical predispositions, together with environmental factors affect human behavior, that then we will be able to take these into consideration when we engage in peacebuilding. Such learning, she says, if used wisely, may help us develop more effective strategies for peacebuilding.

At the end of her monograph, Mari has 10 questions and since that was a bit overwhelming, we raise three. The primary one is what can and should peacebuilders do about such cognitive biases and preconditions? More specifically, how do we address people's emotional needs as well as the rational interests and needs in our peace building work? And, how can we work within the constraints of non-rational, emotional thinking? In other words, how can we work with the elephant, rather than trying to engage in a futile effort to convert all thinking to the rational approach. We hope that you will consider these questions and several more related ones that we have on the discussion page related to this and the earlier video.

Referenced Resources

Picture Credits

Slide 3:  CC0 Public Domain

Slide 4:Elephant / Sunset– Source:; By: sasint; Permission: Public Domain.  Elephant in River – Source:; By: Anajim; Permission: Public Domain.

Slide 5: NationaI Institutes for Mental Health  – Public Domain.

Slide 6: Smiley Face.  public domain. Frowny face:  Twitter [CC BY 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Slide 7: “Free hugs” By ( [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons.

Slide 8 “Free hugs” By ( [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons. Trump: by Gage Skidmore

Slide 9: Smiley Face.  public domain. Frowny face:  Twitter [CC BY 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Slide 10: Sean MacEntee.

Slide 11: Empathy: Sean MacEntee. Frowny face:  Twitter [CC BY 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Slide 12: Empathy: Sean MacEntee. Frowny face:  Twitter [CC BY 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons.  Bridge.  CC0 Public Domain.  No attribution required.

Slide 13: The Advocacy Project.  Kotido peacebuilding workshop group photo  Photo by Courtney Chance, 2009 AP Fellow. Location: Kotido, Uganda. Partner: CECORE/IANSA.

Slide 14: Public domain.

Slide 15: By Virginia State Parks staff [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Slide 16: By Virginia State Parks staff [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Slide 17: By Dgurteen [GFDL ( or CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Slide 18: Elephant / Sunset– Source:; By: sasint; Permission: Public Domain.  Elephant in River – Source:; By: Anajim; Permission: Public Domain

Slide 20:  Evaluation: Public Domain.

Slide 21 and 22: By WOLF LΔMBERT (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons