Dr. Robert Sapolsky: What Does It Take to Really Understand Our Decisions?

Robert Sapolsky
I’m Alan Alda, and this is C+V, conversations about connecting and communicating.
I think a huge percentage of people are capable of shocking themselves at how crummy their behavior can be in the right un-right circumstance and how heroically compassionate they could turn out to be in circumstances where they may not have expected. Yeah, this capacity for extremes of pro-social and anti-social behaviors, is just without precedent in the animal kingdom.

For a man who spent 8 to 10 hours a day every summer for 25 years on the plains of Africa in the company of baboons, Robert Sapolsky is amazingly human – and a true joy to talk with and listen to. I’ve had that pleasure a couple of times, so I was very happy when he agreed to chat again on Clear and Vivid – which by the way, is a great way to sum up his communication skills. These skills are on display in his most recent book, an illuminating and witty exploration of why we behave the way we do, and titled Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst

We talked via a video link between our Manhattan studio and Stanford University, where he is a well-known and popular professor.

Alan: 00:00 I’m so glad to be talking with you because you have studied, your whole life, things that interest me immensely and deeply. I’m spending this part of my life working on these things, like communication. One of the most interesting examples of communication that is part of your life, I think, is when you were in the museum and you saw African dioramas, and the communication of the diorama, which I always felt was kind of sad and still and looked like a taxidermy shop. You wanted to live in the dioramas. Is that true?
Robert: 00:39 Well, that shows you how sad and taxidermed Brooklyn was at the time, being a kid. Yes. I don’t know. I guess I didn’t see the spider webs and stuff on those Carl Akeley… Carl Akeley was the explorer who was responsible for most of the taxidermed things in the African [inaudible 00:01:01] Museum in Natural History. They do look a little bit on the antique side but-
Alan: 01:08 But somehow it excited your imagination and you’d kind of devoted your life from that moment on. How old were you when you got fascinated with those animals?
Robert: 01:17 I think I was about eight when I decided I wanted to be a primatologist. It was sort of a natural transition from the, how many t-rexes would it take to take down a brontosaurus kind of stage of childhood obsession.
Alan: 01:35 Then finally at what point did you wind up actually being in Africa? Not the diorama, but the real Africa.
Robert: 01:44 The real thing? It was a week after I graduated college. I went off at that age, 20, and landed in Kenya and started studying baboons.
Alan: 01:56 Baboons. Did you learn as much about people from studying baboons as you did about baboons?
Robert: 02:05 I suspect so. Well, my early years as a faculty member sure informed a lot during faculty meetings, trying to make sense of dominance displays and what the hierarchy was like. But to an enormous extent, you realize how much we’re on a continuum with all the other primates there. We do some extraordinarily unique things, but for the most part it’s doing extraordinarily unique things with the basic blueprint that we share with every other primate out there.
Alan: 02:41 Yet we seem to have some extension that does, at least in the opinion of a lot of us, make us different from our cousins. Do you share that or do you think we’re way more alike than we think we are?
Robert: 02:59 Well, one of the cliches is all species are unique and some species are uniqueier than others. Humans are certainly way up there in that regard. I think what one keeps seeing means we’ve learned more and more about, we’re not the only species that kills. We’re not the only species that makes tools. We’re not the only species with at least the rudiments of theory of mind, a sense of justice, empathy, all that.
Robert: 03:29 I think what comes through is we’re just like every other primate out there in terms of that basic building blocks. And we’re utterly unlike them in terms of our ability to just abstract our behaviors, our feelings, over space and time. By that I mean we can do something that no primate on earth can ever dream of, no other primate, which is we can kill a member of our species whose face we never see. We just press a button. Or for the right online dating, we can fall in love somebody and we don’t even know what they smell like. That’s like, no. No baboon would ever do that. And we can feel moved by the plight of somebody on the other side of the planet and do something to try to make their life better.
Robert: 04:24 We can be incredibly upset about what happens to a fictional character, and we’re sitting there and we have to say, “No. Actually, they’re just pixels up on a movie screen.” But still you’re incredibly upset like, “Oh no, the poor Na’vi. They’ve knocked over Hometree in Avatar,” or something, and what you-
Alan: 04:42 And we’re capable of having these contradictory impulses towards one another. I hope to learn from you, in our conversation, a little bit more than I understand now, which is practically nothing, about why we’re so capable of cooperation and dominance at the same time, of nurture and torture. Very often, the same person, can do both ends of that wide swing. What is the [inaudible 00:05:15] that enables us to do it, because it doesn’t conform to our view of ourselves, by and large?
Robert: 05:20 No. But I think a huge percentage of people are capable of shocking themselves at how crummy their behavior can be in the right unright circumstance and how heroically compassionate they could turn out to be in circumstances where they may not have expected. Yeah, this capacity for extremes of jargon, now we’re pro-social and anti-social behaviors, is just without precedent in the animal kingdom. It reflects-
Alan: 05:54 Let me ask you a question right there. It seems to me that it was a revelation to a lot of us when we found that chimps would go after other chimps, baby chimps and attack them and eat them, I believe was the story. That sounds even worse than some of what we do.
Robert: 06:18 Well, we all got raised on those like National Geographic specials from the early ’60s, or at least I was, which always had some bass onerous voice at the end saying, “We are the only species that kills members of its own kind,” and that turned out to be nonsense. Other species kill. They kill impulsively. They kill in premeditated ways. They kill with Machiavellian sort of elegance. They kill with a crudity like we’re capable of, and we’re not the only species that does that. But we’re the only one who does it with all sorts of abstract ways that differentiates us from the other primates.

Alan: 07:03 We do seem to have… want to take a second and clear your throat?
Robert: 07:11 I will too.
Alan: 07:13 Good, and Graham can cut that out. We do seem to have this interesting capacity to recognize people as part of our group, and therefore with whom we’re sort of one, we’re united, and we don’t even know who they are. We don’t know their names and addresses. We’ve never seen them. But because we share the same slogan or the same flag or the same belief system, we’re ready to protect other members of the group, and find hostile ways to react to people not in the group. That’s different for us, isn’t it?
Robert: 07:55 Well, the key thing that’s different there is how we go about recognizing relatives. Everything about the evolution of behavior is built around, among the key building blocks, this notion of kin selection. Animals behave in order to maximize the number of copies, these little genes they leave in the next generation, and some of the time you do that by reproducing yourself as many times as possible. But some of the time, you do that by helping close relatives who share genes with you to do that.
Robert: 08:28 So cooperation in every social species out there is built along lines of kinship. So the critical question becomes, if you’re a hamster, how do you figure out who’s a whole sibling, who’s a half sibling, who’s a stranger? And it’s done innately, instinctually. It’s done with pheromones. It’s done by odors, and there’s a whole science to that, and instinctual recognition of relatives is a common theme in lots of other species. We can’t do that. We can’t meet a cousin for the first time in our life and be able to smell that they’re a second cousin and not a third cousin. That’s not one of the things we’re good at as a primate.
Robert: 09:09 But what we’re very good at, the way we figure out who counts as an ‘us’ and who counts as a ‘them’ is rather than relying on instinct, we’ve got to think about it. As soon as we have to think about it, we’re subject into being manipulated into feeling more connected to some individuals than we actually are genetically connected by culture, ideology, theology, all that sort of stuff, or feeling so unrelated to some other fellow humans that it hardly even counts as killing a human when we do that. The mere fact that we have to think our way through and we’re subject to symbolic manipulation as to who counts as an ‘us’ or a ‘them’, is where all the complexities come in.

MUSIC BRIDGE
Alan: 09:59 The complexities seem to be really on an enormous scale. I think I’ve heard you say or read you say that when you’re tracking someone’s behavior, figuring out where the behavior comes from, you have to start with what was happening a second before the behavior, and then a whole chain of other things that have been an influence on it like hormones and genes, and you have to go all the way back into the ancient in prehistory. That seems like an enormous amount of factors to figure out, leading to a behavior. Am I on the right track with how you look at it?
Robert: 10:43 Absolutely. You look at someone who’s just done something wonderful and altruistic, or brutal and savage, or ambiguously somewhere in between, and a classic human response we have is to in effect say, “Why did they do that just now?” When you ask that, you’re asking something about what neurons in different parts of their brain did a fraction of a second ago. But you’re also asking about what environmental stimuli in the previous seconds to minutes triggered those neurons. You’re also asking what did hormone levels that morning have to do with making those neurons more or less sensitive to those triggers. Then you’re often running in neuroplasticity, how has experience changed those neurons in previous months. Then you’re back to adolescence and childhood and fetal life, which has a huge amount to do with sort of brain you’re going to have as an adult, deciding whether or not you’re going to do that critically wonderful or critically horrible thing.
Robert: 11:50 Then even further back, genes come in, and culture, because the way you were raised within minutes of birth, reflects the culture your ancestors were coming up with centuries ago, what kind of ecosystems shape those cultures. Then at the bottom of the barrel, why we’re evolved into this kind of species instead of that kind. I think that is-
Alan: 12:13 If there were so many factors involved, before you can figure out the source of a behavior, how can you possibly put them all together? There’s so many branchings, it seems to me, that you have to take into account.
Robert: 12:27 Well, the mindless conclusion to all of this is we’re complicated. That doesn’t get us very far. I’m increasingly convinced the most important conclusion from all of it is we’re complicated, so you better be really sure and really careful and really cautious before you decide you understand why somebody did something, especially if that’s a something that you’re judging harshly.
Alan: 12:56 Yeah. I’d read you were saying that scientists could be making a big mistake to study one tiny part of the brain to the exclusion of other parts, not realizing that there’s a whole complex corporation going on just in terms of the brain alone, let alone the factors you’re bringing.
Robert: 13:18 Well, the second I mean you’re-
Alan: 13:19 Go ahead.
Robert: 13:21 Yeah. Exactly. I mean, you’re up against the reality that if you’re a research scientist, what your job is is to obsess over some tiny sliver of the universe to the exception of everything else, and be convinced that this explains the entire world. The danger is when people really do begin to think that, aha, this behavior, this societal problem, this whatever, is completely explained by this part of the brain, this hormone, this gene, this childhood experience, this neurotransmitter. What you’re doing there is, It’s like trying to judge how a movie got to its conclusion by watching only 30 seconds of it. You’re missing where all the influences came in.
Alan: 14:09 What about empathy? We began talking about communication, and it seems to me, as I try to figure out how the best communication takes place, it seems to me that empathy is at the heart of it if you’re trying to communicate with somebody. If you don’t know what they’re going through while you’re talking to them, you could be talking to a lamp post and having the same effect. So how does empathy happen in us? How does it develop in us? Why do we have any more empathy than other primates? If so, how did we get it?
Robert: 14:51 Yep. Where you see the building blocks of it, in like people who’ve spent whole careers looking at the emergence of empathy and compassion, etc, in kids, what you see early on is this first landmark, this jargon theory of mind, the first time you understand that somebody else has something going on in their head that’s different from what you have. Chimps can do this under motivated circumstances. Human kids reliably start doing that around age three or four or so, and that’s a first building block to, somebody has different thoughts than you, somebody else has different feelings than you. And they could be feeling awful-
Alan: 15:34 Which do you think comes first?
Robert: 15:36 That’s a big debate, because what you get is, I mean, all this high [inaudible 00:15:41], how do you test for theory of mind in age three you see the first evidence of it. You take a 15-month old kid and you have an adult sit there or a researcher who pretends to be upset and crying, and that 15-month old will come over and try to give him their pacifier. Is that the rudiments of empathy or is that the rudiments of the kid just saying, “Will you be quiet already? It’s distressing to hear other people carrying on, so here, hold my stuffy for a little bit.” That’s one of the debates.
Alan: 16:15 It almost sounds like the distinction some people make, who say… people say, “We’re thinking beings that feel, but we’re really feeling beings that think.” And in a way, you’re suggesting that we’ve felt first and thought later.
Robert: 16:32 And that’s a huge issue in moral philosophy these days. How do we make our moral judgements? Do we think our way to them or do we feel our way? And people like Jonathan Haidt in NYU, others, have done wonderful work showing awful lot of the time, we’re feeling our way to a moral decision, and then all of our rationality goes into coming up with a rationalization for why that actually makes sense. Aha, that’s why they’re wrong when they do that. It’s wrong, wrong, wrong.

MUSIC BRIDGE
Alan: 17:04 You said something once that struck me as something so important, I wrote it down immediately. You said, “You can’t reason with someone out of a position that they weren’t reasoned into in the first place.” I suppose you mean if they have a feeling connection to their position, and it’s mainly the feeling that got them into that position, you’re not going to change them or affect them much with logic.
Robert: 17:33 Absolutely, because you have to address… I mean, it’s kind of, okay, somebody has a stance. They have an opinion. You disagree with it deeply. They feel something about economics or social policy that’s totally in contrast to you, and how can they believe that. How can they think that? The key thing is to figure out what circumstances brought them to that point. Those circumstances have far to do with emotion than they do with cognition.
Robert: 18:06 Huge predictors of people’s political stances about social issues revolve around how anxiety-prone they are, how much having their hands dirty distresses them, how much sitting down on a seat that somebody else was sitting on, and it’s kind of warm and clammy, does that kind of creep you out or what? How much does ambiguity make you anxious versus making you excited? It turns out those are hugely important predictors of people who wind up being social progressors versus social conservatives.
Alan: 18:43 Yeah. You remind me of a study that you wrote about or talked about once, where people were presented with an unpleasant smell, and for the next few minutes, they were more conservative in their response to questions. How did that work?
Robert: 19:04 Wonderful study. It came out of psychologists at Yale, Paul Bloom and others, where you take people. In a sense, you give them a questionnaire about their political attitudes, about social issues, economic issues, geopolitical issues. And if they’re in a room with a horrible smell garbage in there and it turns out you can get a little commercial vials of garbage smell to [crosstalk 00:19:31]-
Alan: 19:31 Tidy up your home.
Robert: 19:32 Yes, exactly, and even worse, bodily odors in that, turns out if you put somebody in a room with a bad smell in it, they tend to become more conservative about some social issues. Does nothing to the geopolitical stances, the economic stances. What’s that about?
Alan: 19:51 What is that about? Why would they do that? What’s the rationale that’s been proposed?
Robert: 19:56 There’s a totally wonderful piece of neurobiology that helps explain that. It’s a part of the brain called the insular cortex. If you’re your basic boring off-the-rack mammal, what the insular cortex is about is telling you if you’ve just bitten into some disgusting piece of food. If it’s rancid, if it’s toxic, insular cortex reacts, triggers all these reflexes, you spit it out, you gag. Maybe you throw up. You scrunch up your face. This is all part of this [inaudible 00:20:27] response to protect you from gustatory disgust, disgust in toxic spoiled food.
Robert: 20:35 It turns out, works the same way in us, in humans. You stick somebody in a brain scanner and you somehow persuade them to bite into this rancid, whatever, and insular cortex activates. We can do something fancier than that. You don’t give the person something disgusting to eat. You just prompt them to think about eating a cockroach or… and you activate the insular cortex.
Alan: 20:56 Oh my God. When you said that, I just voted for Genghis Khan.
Robert: 21:02 Yes. There, proof in action. All this was one big experiment on you, Alan. But then-
Alan: 21:07 What’s the connection between… first of all, I’m curious, how does it know to give you a message that there’s something disgusting there? And secondly, what’s the connection between smelling something as disgusting and exhibiting a more conservative attitude? I don’t get the connection.
Robert: 21:27 Yeah. Okay, because that comes from the utterly amazing thing that the human insular cortex does, in addition to disgusting taste and smells, of thinking about disgusting ones. You tell somebody about some disgusting act. The Nazis did this. The white supremacists did that. This is what happened in this massacre. This is something heartbreaking, and the insular cortex activates in us.
Robert: 21:57 In humans, it also does moral disgust. And what that tells you is, you look at the activity of like a single insular cortical neuron, and you can’t tell if it’s just tasted some disgusting food or if it’s contemplated some disgusting moral act.
Alan: 22:16 So it makes a moral evaluation, a moral judgment. Is that somehow linked to a conservative you, because it seems to me that you could be disgusted at things that a more liberal view would be disgusted by. I don’t see how you shift it over to a more conservative one. Can you explain that?
Robert: 22:38 Great. Yeah. Well, what you wind up seeing is we associate visceral disgust with moral disgust. That’s why something that’s upsetting enough makes us feel queasy, makes us feel sick to our stomach, makes us feel like puking. You can’t believe humans could be that terrible to each other. This is the fact that it’s the same part of the brain that’s processing it. We have a strong tendency to associate visceral, emotional states, within cognitive states that justify the viscera. What you see in terms of the political stances is this utterly cool, great finding which is on the average social conservatives have a lower threshold for visceral disgust than do social progressives.
Robert: 23:31 You show people pictures of wounds with festering maggots, or whatever, and you get more of a gut latching in social conservatives, on the average. You get more of a tendency to wash your hands afterward. Even studies looking at the number of cleaning products in the bathrooms of social progressors versus conservatives, and there’s a difference, what you have is just on a visceral level if you’re very prone to finding all sorts of things to make you feel a little bit squeamish and a little bit off, and you’re more prone to decide that them and their different behaviors, rather than being cool or exciting or neutral, is that much more likelier that you conclude, is this just kind of disgusting, and it’s wrong, wrong, wrong.

MUSIC BRIDGE
Alan: 24:23 Well, that’s an interesting connection between those two studies, isn’t it? The tendency to… what you just described. I’d like to go back for a second to what I asked you before, and then we got derailed a little bit in the most interesting way, by the way. Where would you say that empathy… how would you say empathy develops in a person?
Robert: 25:02 I think it’s this transition to, there are other people who can have different thoughts than me. There are other people who can have different feelings. They can have bad feelings when I feel good. That’s not sufficient because if all you’ve got at that point is an extremely good capacity for leading other people’s emotions and thoughts. If it does nothing more, and that’s where it stops, you’ve just described a really good sociopath. They have amazing theories of mind in terms of being able to manipulate other people. It’s something about that process of the first time somebody else’s pain is your pain.
Robert: 25:47 Again, we’ve got a part of the brain, a different part, called the anterior cingulate that activates if somebody is poking your finger with a pin. And it activates if you’re looking at the finger of a loved one being poked.
Alan: 26:03 Do you have to have already developed a certain level of empathy for your… to feel the pain when somebody else’s finger is poked, or is that one of the building blocks of developing empathy?
Robert: 26:18 I think that’s one of the things that naturally emerges. If it doesn’t at all, you’re on the path to sociopathy. What you get is like typical landmarks when kids first get distressed at somebody else’s pain when for the first time you can show their heart rate increases, when they would first give up a cookie to somebody else to share with them because the other person unfairly doesn’t have one. When kids are beginning to get first egalitarian thinking, things of that sort.
Robert: 26:50 Where it of course winds up being incredibly significant in explaining our history as a species is the fact that not everybody registers with us to the same degree, and not everybody’s pain counts as much. Development is an awful lot about being trained within the context of your family, your culture, your particular temperament and threshold as to who’s going to count as an ‘us’, and who’s a ‘them’, whose pain matters to you.
MUSIC BRIDGE
Alan: 27:28 What happens when you hit adolescence? I’ve seen now in my own family, a couple of generations go through adolescence, and it seems to me that, generally speaking, their brains are controlled from outer space.
Robert: 27:49 Yes. It’s been proven.
Alan: 27:50 What’s going on there, especially with regard to empathy?
Robert: 27:56 Well, what you’ve got is, and on a certain level, all of adolescents could be explained by two neurobiological facts. The first one is that the emotional part of the brain chugging the limbic system parts of the brain having to do with aggression, with lust, with love, with all that stuff, regions like the amygdala, for example, the neurotransmitter dopamine, and another part that’s very implicated, you’re pretty much up-to-speed with your limbic system by the time you’re early adolescent.
Robert: 28:30 The part of your brain that spends its time getting to the limbic system and saying, “I know this seems like a wonderful idea. Don’t do it. You’re going to regret it, believe me, believe me,” is the frontal cortex. All of adolescence is explained by the fact that the emotional brain is going full speed there, and the frontal cortex in humans isn’t fully wired up until they’re about 25 years old.
Alan: 28:56 And won’t be till they’re about 25.
Robert: 28:59 Exactly.
Alan: 28:59 That explains that amazing description I read of yours, of a big hole in the ground out West where park rangers have found the skeletons of many people who have fallen into that hole because they tried to climb down and lost their footing. They were almost all teenagers, right?
Robert: 29:27 Yep. Adolescents, and native Americans. This is this cave up in the Sierras, with this deep 180-foot chamber that is, you take the first step into there and that’s your last step, unless you’re roped in. Generations of dumbass exploratory adolescents who decided, let’s take one more step in there to see what could happen, and 10,000 years later, some graduate student is getting their thesis out of your skeleton down at the bottom there.
Alan: 30:01 Do you think that in terms of evolution, it wasn’t a bad idea to let the young generation be novelty seeking to be adventurous, to take risks, and maybe that’s why the brain develops in that order? By the way, any theory that says, “This is a good idea because it would have been good for evolution,” is suspicious I think because you can make up a good theory about anything. You want to have the evidence to show us.
Robert: 30:34 Yes. The world of just so stories.
Alan: 30:37 Exactly, yeah.
Robert: 30:38 You see, adolescents, are weird. It’s the time in life you’re most likely to mug an old lady, rob a liquor store, join some nationalist, fascist, groupie… it’s the time in life where you’re most likely to devote yourself to the wellbeing of strangers on the other side of the planet, the time of life you’re most likely to like found a religion or a cult. It’s one of emotional extremes.
Robert: 31:08 I think part of it is this very primate thing we do, which is you look at lots of social species. You look at antelope, for example. All these social species have this rule, that at puberty, one of the sexes has to pick up and move and find some other group, and it’s like in-breeding avoidance so that everybody is not breeding with their cousins. This is like an evolved mechanism, incest avoidance in lots and lots of species. What you typically see, you look, in antelope, for example, who’s going through that. There’s a breeding male and a whole herd of females there, and here’s this male kid who’s growing up and hits puberty. And he starts to show the first [inaudible 00:31:53] of that, starts to get some horns. His pheromones start smelling a little bit more musky or who knows what.
Robert: 32:01 What typically happens at that point is that the breeding male, who is not his father, that was 14 breeding males ago, drives him out. He’s threatened by him and drives him out. In other words, in lots of social species, this in-breeding avoidance is done through a mechanism where adolescents of one sex or the other are driven out around puberty.
Robert: 32:22 When you get to primates, something different happens. We don’t have to be driven out. Primates, when they hit adolescence, just get ants in the pants. They just get itchy. They just get so bored with… like if they have to groom this damn monkey one more time that they’ve groomed every day of their life, they’re going to scream. And they get this itch to pick up and go. The difference by species is to which sex does it. In baboons, it’s males. In chimps, it’s females. So we’ve got this primate legacy of adolescence is about this itchiness of novelty seeking and impulsive behaviors and all that sort of stuff-
Alan: 33:09 So you’re saying that we left Africa and found ourselves in Europe and Asia, and the Americas, not because of the spirit so much of adventure, but to do something about the fear of incest? I never heard that idea before.
Robert: 33:31 On some deeply fundamental level, that’s so many layers of causation, a way that it probably doesn’t do a whole lot to explain Christopher Columbus to us. But what you’ve got is this primate adolescents get bored. They’re sick of this old boring little town. They want to go see the world, or at the very least, the troop on the other side of the stream, and I’ve seen this many times with my baboons. Like the troop runs into the neighboring troop and they’re on either side of some stream and they all yell at each other for a while, and they get bored with that and go back to eating and everyone’s back to the usual. Then you spot this little squally adolescent guy from you troop who’s on the edge of the stream and he can’t believe it. Different baboons. Look at all of them. He sits there for an hour and then goes back.
Robert: 34:30 Then a week later, his troop runs into this other troop and he goes down. He sits on the other side of the stream for 10 seconds, and any one there who looks at him, he scampers back. Then a week later, he spends the afternoon on the other side, and it’s the most exciting thing. My God, have different baboons. I’m getting out of here.
We’re going into a short break. When we come back, Robert Sapolsky and I talk about empathy, where it comes from, why it’s sometimes hard to keep up, and how to use it to break down barriers between them and us. Right after this.
MIDROLL
This is C+V and now back to my conversation with Robert Sapolsky
Alan: 14:09 What about empathy? We began talking about communication, and it seems to me, as I try to figure out how the best communication takes place, it seems to me that empathy is at the heart of it if you’re trying to communicate with somebody. If you don’t know what they’re going through while you’re talking to them, you could be talking to a lamp post and having the same effect. So how does empathy happen in us? How does it develop in us? Why do we have any more empathy than other primates? If so, how did we get it?
Robert: 14:51 Yep. Where you see the building blocks of it, in like people who’ve spent whole careers looking at the emergence of empathy and compassion, etc, in kids, what you see early on is this first landmark, this jargon theory of mind, the first time you understand that somebody else has something going on in their head that’s different from what you have. Chimps can do this under motivated circumstances. Human kids reliably start doing that around age three or four or so, and that’s a first building block to, somebody has different thoughts than you, somebody else has different feelings than you.

Alan: 27:28 What happens when you hit adolescence? I’ve seen now in my own family, a couple of generations go through adolescence, and it seems to me that, generally speaking, their brains are controlled from outer space.
Robert: 27:49 Yes. It’s been proven.
Alan: 27:50 What’s going on there, especially with regard to empathy?
Robert: 27:56 Well, what you’ve got is, and on a certain level, all of adolescents could be explained by two neurobiological facts. The first one is that the emotional part of the brain chugging the limbic system parts of the brain having to do with aggression, with lust, with love, with all that stuff, regions like the amygdala, for example, the neurotransmitter dopamine, and another part that’s very implicated, you’re pretty much up-to-speed with your limbic system by the time you’re early adolescent.
Robert: 28:30 The part of your brain that spends its time getting to the limbic system and saying, “I know this seems like a wonderful idea. Don’t do it. You’re going to regret it, believe me, believe me,” is the frontal cortex. All of adolescence is explained by the fact that the emotional brain is going full speed there, and the frontal cortex in humans isn’t fully wired up until they’re about 25 years old.
Alan: 28:56 And won’t be till they’re about 25.
Robert: 28:59 Exactly.
Alan: 28:59 That explains that amazing description I read of yours, of a big hole in the ground out West where park rangers have found the skeletons of many people who have fallen into that hole because they tried to climb down and lost their footing. They were almost all teenagers, right?
Robert: 29:27 Yep. Adolescents, and native Americans. This is this cave up in the Sierras, with this deep 180-foot chamber that is, you take the first step into there and that’s your last step, unless you’re roped in. Generations of dumbass exploratory adolescents who decided, let’s take one more step in there to see what could happen, and 10,000 years later, some graduate student is getting their thesis out of your skeleton down at the bottom there.
Alan: 30:01 Do you think that in terms of evolution, it wasn’t a bad idea to let the young generation be novelty seeking to be adventurous, to take risks, and maybe that’s why the brain develops in that order? By the way, any theory that says, “This is a good idea because it would have been good for evolution,” is suspicious I think because you can make up a good theory about anything. You want to have the evidence to show us.
Robert: 30:34 Yes. The world of just so stories.
Alan: 30:37 Exactly, yeah.
Robert: 30:38 You see, adolescents, are weird. It’s the time in life you’re most likely to mug an old lady, rob a liquor store, join some nationalist, fascist, groupie… it’s the time in life where you’re most likely to devote yourself to the wellbeing of strangers on the other side of the planet, the time of life you’re most likely to like found a religion or a cult. It’s one of emotional extremes.
Robert: 31:08 I think part of it is this very primate thing we do, which is you look at lots of social species. You look at antelope, for example. All these social species have this rule, that at puberty, one of the sexes has to pick up and move and find some other group, and it’s like in-breeding avoidance so that everybody is not breeding with their cousins. This is like an evolved mechanism, incest avoidance in lots and lots of species. What you typically see, you look, in antelope, for example, who’s going through that. There’s a breeding male and a whole herd of females there, and here’s this male kid who’s growing up and hits puberty. And he starts to show the first [inaudible 00:31:53] of that, starts to get some horns. His pheromones start smelling a little bit more musky or who knows what.
Robert: 32:01 What typically happens at that point is that the breeding male, who is not his father, that was 14 breeding males ago, drives him out. He’s threatened by him and drives him out. In other words, in lots of social species, this in-breeding avoidance is done through a mechanism where adolescents of one sex or the other are driven out around puberty.
Robert: 32:22 When you get to primates, something different happens. We don’t have to be driven out. Primates, when they hit adolescence, just get ants in the pants. They just get itchy. They just get so bored with… like if they have to groom this damn monkey one more time that they’ve groomed every day of their life, they’re going to scream. And they get this itch to pick up and go. The difference by species is to which sex does it. In baboons, it’s males. In chimps, it’s females. So we’ve got this primate legacy of adolescence is about this itchiness of novelty seeking and impulsive behaviors and all that sort of stuff-
Alan: 33:09 So you’re saying that we left Africa and found ourselves in Europe and Asia, and the Americas, not because of the spirit so much of adventure, but to do something about the fear of incest? I never heard that idea before.
Robert: 33:31 On some deeply fundamental level, that’s so many layers of causation, a way that it probably doesn’t do a whole lot to explain Christopher Columbus to us. But what you’ve got is this primate adolescents get bored. They’re sick of this old boring little town. They want to go see the world, or at the very least, the troop on the other side of the stream, and I’ve seen this many times with my baboons. Like the troop runs into the neighboring troop and they’re on either side of some stream and they all yell at each other for a while, and they get bored with that and go back to eating and everyone’s back to the usual. Then you spot this little squally adolescent guy from you troop who’s on the edge of the stream and he can’t believe it. Different baboons. Look at all of them. He sits there for an hour and then goes back.
Robert: 34:30 Then a week later, his troop runs into this other troop and he goes down. He sits on the other side of the stream for 10 seconds, and any one there who looks at him, he scampers back. Then a week later, he spends the afternoon on the other side, and it’s the most exciting thing. My God, have different baboons. I’m getting out of here.
Alan: 34:51 Till he gets his green card eventually. Yeah. Amazing.
Robert: 34:57 Exactly. Yes.
Alan: 35:01 In this process, what’s contributing to our being empathic? Why are some of us having trouble with being empathic? I mean, I must say, I’m curious about it. I noticed that the more empathic I am, the less I find other people annoying. So it’s helpful for me to be more empathic. But I even have developed exercises to try to help myself be more empathic. But if I don’t do them for a while, I start to lose this sense of observing what the other person is feeling or caring about. And I’m wondering why I lose it. Do you think stress has a problem? I know stress is important to you.
Robert: 35:49 Stress, that’s part of it. Fatigue, exhaustion, distraction, jargon in the field, cognitive load, all of that. What you see is, in a sense, there’s two different types of empathy. One is the easy one. That’s just automatic, and it’s someone who looks like you, and it’s someone who’s pained in a way that you’ve experienced. It’s somebody local. All of that is just tapping into effortless sense of empathy.
Robert: 36:20 But then the type of empathy where you’re trying to make sense of someone from extremely different culture whose practices and values are totally alien, or somebody whose pain happens to be something that you would enjoy doing. Those take work. It takes real cognitive work to take somebody else’s perspective and to say, “Wait a second. Stop before you judge. Their circumstances are different. What are their mitigating factors?” That takes work. When we’re tired, when we’re hungry, when we’re stressed, when we’re distracted, it’s harder to do that. We become much more parochial and narrow in our empathy when we’re stressed.
Alan: 37:08 What effect does the stress have on us that makes it more difficult to be empathic? Is there a hormonal problem or what?
Robert: 37:21 This was a wonderful group at McGill University, Jeffrey Mogil and colleagues, who’ve shown the rudiments of empathy in lab rats, and the bits of it in humans where they have an experimental model, and you see something really striking which looks so familiar, which is a rat can be empathic and respond physiologically with distress to another rat in pain, the same way that we humans can be for another human. But it depends on who the rat is. If it’s a rat that they know, that they like, a cage mate, if it’s a rat who’s genetically from the same strain as them, you get this empathic response. If it’s a strange rat, you don’t. In other words, even for a rat, not everyone’s pain is equal.
Robert: 38:15 What you wind up doing… this was a collaboration I did with that group, speculating that maybe this has to do with what do strangers do to you if you’re a social beast that makes you feel a little stressed. And you secrete this class of stress hormones called glucocorticoids. The human version is cortisol. There are a bunch of reasons to think that might work this way. What we did was we took a bunch of rats in those circumstances and you give them a drug that blocks glucocorticoid release for a while, and they suddenly become more empathic to strange rats who are in pain.
Alan: 38:51 To strange rats?
Robert: 38:53 Yes. Then best of all, with this study, you take your freshman college volunteers and you put them in some circumstance where you see more of an empathic response for individuals you just interacted with in a fun way for just 30 minutes before the test versus for a stranger, and you do the same thing. You give them the same drug and you block the glucocorticoid release, and you see more empathy for strangers than you would have otherwise.
Alan: 39:18 So-
Robert: 39:19 In other words, part of our narrowing of empathy in scary circumstances, novel circumstances, all of that, as it turns out, this stress hormone works in the brain to narrow our focus as to whose pain matters, as to who counts as an us.
Alan: 39:38 Is there any indication that we’re more stressed out as a people now than we have been traditionally?
Robert: 39:48 This is kind of a big debate in the field. I mean, without question, the incidence of stress-related diseases have increased. Is that because we’re more stressed? No, it’s probably because we’re dying of Bubonic plague less frequently. The incidence of stress-related psychiatric disorders have risen a great deal. Is that because we’re more stressed? We’re stressed in different ways, and we’re stressed in ways where our coping mechanisms have less to rely on in the way of social connections in family and stable… I mean, what’s our American God-given right? It’s to pick up and move and change your name and be anonymous and be mobile, and if it’s a better job to go to another town, you go and do it, sort of thing. What we lose there is this very primate connectiveness. I think that’s a source of a lot of the stress.
Robert: 40:45 Where you wind up getting something hopeful though is another bizarre thing that humans do, which is like if you’re a baboon who counts as an ‘us’ versus a ‘them’, ‘us’ are my relatives, ‘us’ are the individuals in my troop versus the other troop, few other parameters. If you’re human, though, you can belong to a lot of different groups at once and have a lot of different us/them categories in your head, so that in one circumstance, somebody can count as an ‘us’. Uh-oh, here’s one of those scary, menacing people of that type coming down the street towards me on this dark, empty street and I feel anxious. But in another setting, that person, the same person, is sitting next to you and you’re both in the stands at some sporting events, and you’re both chanting the same idiotic thing, supporting the same team, and they’re an ‘us’. They’re an ‘us’ and you would die in the trenches for that person because you both support the same… we can switch in a second who counts as an ‘us’ and a ‘them’.
Robert: 41:53 What the studies show is there’s very few categories in humans of our really most destructive ‘us’es and ‘them’s built along racial lines, ethnic lines, all of that. There’s very few of those that could not be manipulated and supplanted, at least transiently, by some other category suddenly counting as much more important. Before you know it, a ‘them’ has become an ‘us’.
Alan: 42:18 I suppose an increase of empathy could enable you to bridge the gap between what you regard as us and them. But there’s a problem, it seems to me. Empathy is not the same as doing something about the feeling you have.
Robert: 42:37 Yep.
Alan: 42:39 Tell me about that difference as you see it.
Robert: 42:43 This is incredibly important thing. You look at moral development in people, and a very rich cognitive history of study, and Lawrence Kohlberg, and moral development and kids, and all these abstract features of what’s the moral thing to do. And it turns out, like your Kohlbergian moral stage has like zero prediction of who’s going to step out of the crowd and do the scary, hard, brave thing.
Robert: 43:12 In a similar way, your degree of empathy, just how much you’re feeling somebody else’s pain, is not a particularly good predictor of who’s going to actually step out of the line there and do something compassionate and scary and difficult. There’s a huge gap between the two, and people like Paul Bloom have wonderfully elucidated this contrast. Empathy cannot be a virtue in and of itself. Empathy-
Alan: 43:41 Yeah. We had a wonderful conversation on this podcast, Paul Bloom and I, and Jonathan Haidt as well. It was fun to talk with Paul about empathy because he wrote that book, Empathy… I forget. Against Empathy.
Robert: 43:57 Against Empathy.
Alan: 43:58 Yeah.
Robert: 44:01 He’s gotten a lot of grief for it, but it’s because people confuse, merely feeling somebody else’s pain is not sufficient. It turns out, if you are feeling somebody else’s pain so much that your blood pressure’s increased and your heart is racing and your sympathetic nervous system is making your stomach clutch, and you’re feeling queasy and all of that, that’s not a predictor for somebody who’s going to step out of the crowd and do the brave, interventive thing.
Alan: 44:30 On the contrary. It’s equivalent to burnout.
Robert: 44:33 Exactly. That’s the person who’s going to turn the page and go on to the next article, because they can’t take it anymore. And in a sense-
Alan: 44:40 So how do we… sorry, go ahead and finish. I’m sorry.
Robert: 44:43 Well, translating that into physiology, you look at somebody else’s pain and you break the world into people whose hearts start racing at that point versus people who don’t. The ones whose hearts race are the ones who are feeling the pain so much that the main concern becomes their own pain, and feeling the pain, and they turn inward and don’t act compassionately.
Robert: 45:07 On a more cognitive behavioral level, if the main point of somebody else’s pain is, you sit there and say, “Oh my God. This must be so awful for them,” that’s a predictor of a compassionate act. On the other hand, if you sit there and say, “Oh my God. It would be so awful if this were happening to me,” that’s the predictor of the person who says, “This is just way too upsetting and I’m going to change the channel now.”
Alan: 45:38 That’s an interesting idea. Has that been tested?
Robert: 45:42 Yep. Absolutely, and wonderful, showing empathy comes with a lot of different flavors. Not to get all Buddhist on you here because I couldn’t possibly be further from my basic temperament, but a sort of detachment is kind of a prerequisite. If you’re feeling somebody else’s pain so viscerally that all your feeling is, hey, this hurts, your main concern becomes what’s the easiest way to stop that hurt, not to make their life better, not to reform societal infrastructure. It’s to just decide, you know what, that’s not my problem. It’s their fault. Somebody else will take care of it. There’s nothing I can do about it. I’m going to go back and see what I’m going to have for lunch now.
Alan: 46:34 If the way to make things better for people who are suffering is to get a group of us who are willing to act on our empathy, sounds like we have to find ways to encourage ourselves and others to have that detachment that you just talked about. How would we go about such a thing?
Robert: 47:00 Well, I think one of the first steps is to dissociate the empathy that leads to actual compassionate acts, to dissociate it from the easy markers. Ooh, someone who looks like me, someone who eats like me, who prays like me, who adorns their body the way I do, somebody who’s feeling the same sort of pain that I went through, and I know how awful that was, to train people to be able to not require similarity or easy, ‘us’ categorizations, to train people to be able to recognize the pain in someone whose values are just unrecognizable from where you come from. And that’s not easy.
Alan: 47:54 Do you think there’s any value in pointing out similarities that do exist, but that seem not to exist because there’s so much ‘them’ness about them that nevertheless you can find, even though we voted polar opposites into office or tried to get those polar opposites into office, we nevertheless share many things. We share a love of children. We share a love of country. We believe in fairness. There are so many ways we could say to one another, “You don’t have to like them. You have to just notice that we do belong to the same tribe.”
Robert: 48:40 Yeah, and it comes in unexpected ways. This is exactly where this notion of, you can’t reason somebody out of something they weren’t reasoned into in the first place, comes in. You don’t sit down and then tell somebody about all the shared values you have with this person who you would otherwise consider a ‘them’ in all the ways in which they actually have the same feelings. You show them a picture of the person, like giggling with their kid, or holding a puppy, or smiling because they’ve just tasted a piece of food that they love. That’s the visceral level. You discover that you and them loved the same game when you were little, that you both loved Twister, that you both did this. You find those moments of, whoa… I mean, a prerequisite of truly recognizing the similarities with this other person is really emotionally recognizing that they are an autonomous different person there. Wow.
Alan: 49:50 Instead of pointing, you… sounds an awful lot like you’re saying. Instead of pointing out intellectually what you share in common, you actually go through some kind of experience together, even in memory or in pictures, or actually sharing a meal together and loving the taste of it together. That can bring you together apparently, from what you say, better than an intellectual listing of the ways in which you’re similar.
Robert: 50:20 The gut feeling is… and just to even say the gut feeling, turfs it into this whole world of not reasoning people out of things they weren’t reasoned into, to the extent that we’re functioning on gut feelings. The gut feeling is it’s this unexpected little bits and pieces of things. I mean, even on the level of living in San Francisco as I do, this city is flooded with homeless people, and homeless people who by now are often homeless working poor, and because of their costs of rent that have skyrocketed here, things of that sort. You go through an area that’s overrun with homeless people and, my God, what’s happening, in all the ways in which our visceral, bristly, porcupine quills of yeck, are being activated there.
Robert: 51:18 The knowledge that one of those people probably had a supporting lead in their high school play. Most of those people, at some point or other, had a group of people sing Happy Birthday to them. Most of those people opened up a Christmas present at some point where they were so excited that they could barely stand it, that they were eight years old before something went really wrong, or before all the bits of rotten luck they had caught up enough that this is where they are now. But just on that visceral level, my God, that person once was applauded in an auditorium for giving a good debate, whatever, before they got into drugs and wound up on the streets. Any of that, that… if one could see every homeless person who as a child got to blow out the candles on a cake and were so happy and felt so safe in the world that they couldn’t even believe it, if you could see that they went through that as well, that would be transformative.
Alan: 52:33 That’s very, very reassuring to hear you say that. You moved me. That was very nice. We unfortunately have to bring our conversation to a close now. But before we do, we always ask seven quick questions. Hope you’re willing to come up with seven quick answers.
Robert: 52:52 Okay.
Alan: 52:52 It’s painless. We’ve revised our questions so they’re not the same as in the first few seasons. Number one, what’s the hardest thing you’ve ever tried to explain to someone?
Robert: 53:10 Why there’s no free will, and why you really cannot judge anybody else’s actions.
Alan: 53:16 I think you were explaining that to me once, in one of our conversations.
Robert: 53:19 Well, I do that to everyone these days.
Alan: 53:24 How do you handle a nosy person?
Robert: 53:31 Let’s see. I probably passive aggressively invent an entire false history for myself.
Alan: 53:39 You’ve actually done that?
Robert: 53:41 I probably have on a no claiming to be the long-lost Anastasia Romanov or something like that.
Alan: 53:49 Okay. Next question. How do you tell someone they have their facts wrong?
Robert: 53:58 You probably first spend a whole lot of time figuring out why those facts are important to them, and take it from there.
Alan: 54:07 Oh, that’s interesting. Now here are a couple of our old favorite questions. What’s the strangest question anyone’s ever asked you?
Robert: 54:17 I would say, I was giving a talk once about my baboons, and baboon social behavior and on how social affiliation is good for baboon stress hormone levels. And somebody said, “Don’t think it’s kind of weird that you spent decades studying that while living alone in a tent?” Yeah, that kind of stopped me in my tracks.
Alan: 54:42 Okay. How do you stop a compulsive talker?
Robert: 54:52 I don’t know. Maybe hug them and say, “It’s going to be okay.” That’s probably not going to work though, but at least it may break the stream of consciousness.
Alan: 55:04 Now here’s a couple of questions, the last two, that have been suggested by our listeners. How do you like to start up a real conversation with someone who you don’t know at a dinner party?
Robert: 55:19 Ask them what stuff are they most excited about.
Alan: 55:22 That’s what I do. I ask them what their passion is. Yeah, that’s interesting. Then they’re on, right? They’re going.
Robert: 55:30 They’re on. Truly interesting people are always obsessed about something, and something that never in your lifetime would you consider, like geckos, or Viking coins, or who knows what it is they’re obsessed over, or the 43 Cleveland Indians, or what’s the most interesting stuff you obsess over out there.
Alan: 55:55 Okay. Here’s the last question. What gives you confidence?
Robert: 56:03 Confidence in human future?
Alan: 56:06 Or however you would interpret it. I always thought of it as personal confidence, but you pick it.
Robert: 56:13 Well, one day I’ll figure out how to feel personally confident, but in the meantime, keep worrying about humanity.
Alan: 56:20 Right. You might get swept up in that whole question of humanity.
Robert: 56:22 Yeah. The hope is that the tidal wave of things bobbing up will [crosstalk 00:56:28] as well.
Alan: 56:27 That’s interesting. Do you feel confident about humanity?
Robert: 56:33 Yeah, and it’s against every bit of basic wiring I have. I am, by nature, a total pessimist. Nonetheless, when you sit and look at stuff we’re learning, and what an awful planet this was 2, 300 years ago, and people who count as deserving our protection now, that never even used to register, I don’t know. There’s a little bit of room to feel confident that things are going to get better as we all swim amid the rising water levels in the middle of United States, as the oceans come and cover us.
Alan: 57:11 Well, in spite of that, you’ve made me feel confident about the future of humanity, and I’m grateful to you. One more wonderful conversation that I’ve had with you. Thank you so much, Robert.
Robert: 57:22 Always a pleasure, Alan.

If this podcast has whetted your appetite for more of Robert Sapolsky you can read his recent book, now in paperback, Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst. And check out Robert Sapolsky on YouTube, where you can find a wonderful Ted Talk , and, courtesy of Stanford University, an entire series of lectures on Human Behavioral Biology.