The relationship between fear and violence

Over the past week or so, on a few separate occasions, I was reminded of how fear can make people accept the infringement on personal liberties, question the rights of others to exist, and even participate in horrible acts of violence towards others:

  • with me being German but (luckily) Germany not having been victorious at the end of World War II, I quite often think of how Nazi propaganda was used to instigate fear in the population against both political enemies of the NSDAP and an ethnic group, eventually leading to people either accepting or ignoring the genocide of the Jews
  • the recently (U.S.-) released movie “The Act of Killing” shows, from the perspective of a group of men who have killed hundreds, how in the mid-1960s the Indonesian population had to endure one of the worst mass-killings, when fears over a communist  take-over of the country were used to justify cruel and atrocious acts
  • even though the Civil Rights Movement changed America forever, to this day people of color, particularly men, are often faced with implicit prejudice about their intention, whether or not they pose a threat, making them the target of even non-police suspicion, as happened when George Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin
  • since the 9/11 attacks, America has been struggling with how people of Muslim background, whether or not they are religious or fanatic, are subject to extreme scrutiny and Muslims in America are probably suffering from the continued classification as “potential terrorists”
  • the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine seems to be based on fears on each side that the respective other side’s main motivation is to inflict harm and pain on the own population, leading to ever renewed outbreaks of violent acts, such as bombings and retaliative airstrikes
  • recent Russian legislation now threatens people who either identify as gay or sympathize with the struggle that gay-identifying persons are facing, with the justification being that homosexuality threatens the Russian society, and the most recent events of a gay man being killed and a Dutch man being detained may just be the beginning of a much larger “campaign” that could result in a lot of violence

And the list could easily be extended… On the outside, the people involved may have strong rational sounding opinions about why the conflict, suppression, or violence continues. Often, the reasons entail a perceived but at least at face value plausible threat to society or individual well-being, and the measures taken are made out to be necessary to restore or uphold peace and justice.

However, in all of these cases, I would argue that the base issue is that one group of a population either already holds the belief or is being made to believe that another group is to be feared because of their intention to cause harm. And these fears then bring about condoning or even participating in the infringement of rights and, in part, even violence against anyone suspected to be part of the feared group.

In some of these instances, there may even be factual reasons to be vigilant. The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 actually happened, and it is normal for people suffering such a painful loss to react with fear of subsequent acts of violence. However, what is hardly ever considered is that the people on the “other side” of the conflict who are cheering at the results of these violent acts may be ultimately motivated by the same reason: fear. But is fear truly helpful when it comes to improving a conflict?

One of the results of Americans being afraid for their lives in everyday situations, I believe, can be seen by the fact that the USA is leading the statistic for number of guns per residents. Unfortunately, it seems that being afraid for your life and owning a gun doesn’t make life safer. On the contrary, overall I would argue that more or less constantly fearing for your life is probably an enormous stressor itself. And at the very least the number of people owning a gun seems to be correlated with the number of deaths by firearms.

And somehow I have the strong hunch that the level on which people “prepare for an attack”, either by individuals buying guns or the legislature passing new laws against a group of people, or entire countries procuring weapons suitable for fighting wars between nations, is relatively unimportant. As long as actions taken by individuals as well as policy makers are based on fear, I believe that violence is no longer the means of last resort but rather the next logical step…

Contrary to this approach of using force and violence, my personal vision would be to educate the public about a few things related to fear and violence, and that while these two may seem like two links in an inevitable chain of events, I believe that there are certainly methods to reduce the impact of fear–compassion can be thought of as a counter-force for violence and previous research suggests that compassion can be taught.

Eventually, I think that if humanity cannot overcome the impulse to translate being afraid of other humans into violence against the group to which those we’re afraid of belong, sooner or later someone will push the big red button and blow us all to pieces. It’s not so much if but rather when, and so I think it’s probably worth investigating how a reduction of fear can be achieved in favor of trying to find “smart solutions”, that do not overlook the actual dangers present, but do not allow the fear of these dangers to dictate decision making.

Some common mechanism of cognition and science

Coming from recent personal experiences, I have asked myself quite a few times whether and then also why it is necessary for us to interpret other people’s behavior instead of just taking it at face value. For a while I really felt it would be much more factual and less limiting if we could just observe a behavior and then interact with a person based on what they’re doing instead of based on our interpretation of it. But, unless I am much mistaken, this is neither possible nor would it be practical. And that is where I draw the parallel between science and human cognition: reducing reality into as little and compressed pieces of information, which I would call prediction models.

It may seem obvious but I believe it’s yet worth pointing out that the world we live in, even from a mere physical point of view, has way too many moving parts–on all layers of observation, from subatomic particles, energy fields, and transmission phenomena to people in a crowd that could move virtually anywhere. And as much we may sometimes wish that evolution has truly made the biggest leap ever between the great apes and the human species, our cognitive abilities are still fairly limited. Our experience might sometimes suggest we perceive everything around us as pristinely as HDTV compared to the old standard, but that is probably rather an illusion than reality. So what does happen?

Each and every second, our brains are literally bombarded with data coming in through various channels. For some reason is seems to me that most people have developed a strong preference for visual data, such that seeing has become one of the most important input modalities. But seeing is not perceiving… Our brains have a multi-layered and computationally efficient set of modules that incrementally reduce the data that is being received by primary visual areas into a dense stream of information. Imagine walking through your neighborhood and then seeing a family member about 500 feet away, waving at you. A chain ensues, from a first recognition that what you are seeing is another human being to the point where you realize it’s a family member and then, in combination with some memories, remembering you had made an appointment for later in the day, and finally inferring that the waving is a means of grabbing your attention because something needs to be communicated.

At each step of this (hypothetical but I think plausible) chain, different brain areas are involved, providing necessary patterns that allow to form a consistent and seemingly “feature-rich” experience. In reality however, almost all other data–which could have become information–is rejected in favor of this one cognition: your family member wants to communicate something to you. All other possible explanations for the same reality are discarded, as are all unnecessary elements of data that do not support the conclusion that was reached. And while this is all very elegant, efficient, and beautiful, it also means there is always a chance of missing something fundamental.

And how does it work in science? Well, to some degree it usually starts with a somewhat unsystematic but usually significant observation. For instance, the fact that liquids seem to evaporate under certain conditions, and faster so at higher temperatures. However, while this observation might be made repeatedly, in itself it is only a fact and does not necessarily allow to make predictions about the future. And that is, I believe, what drives both the efficiency in cognition as well as the motivation behind scientific discovery: the desire to “know” the future, so as to enhance the chance for making life-supporting decisions.

To be able to do so, one needs not only observations but also something that links observations to a formulation, a model. And such a model can be extremely simple, such as some already fairly old physical models–which by now have been substantially updated or enhanced to incorporate new evidence that would not be explained by older models. Importantly, a model does not necessarily describe the exact mechanism of transmission of effects! As long as it is able to make correct predictions, at least under a broad range of circumstances and contingencies, it is usually accepted and preferred over not having any model. However, if a model also contains hypotheses about the presumed mechanism, it usually is easier to expand it to uncovered circumstances and test directly; otherwise it may be more difficult to explain why it succeeds or fails under those new conditions.

In cognition, there is a direct mechanism to detect inconsistencies in mental models: a neural signal usually called prediction error. Coming back to the example with the family member, it is entirely possible that the family member who is waving has not yet seen or recognized us and is waving at someone else, in which case the prediction we are likely to make that the family member will continue walking toward us could be proven wrong by subsequent events, such as him or her hugging someone else who was standing close by. Our prediction then needs updating, which is signaled to us, possibly associated with the feeling of surprise, and that is where flexibility in mental models becomes important–as well as in science.

One of the basic notions that I belief are important to keep in mind is that whatever we conclude from an observation, such as it adhering to a specific model, should be taken with a grain of salt. For one, we might have missed a crucial element of data on the input side of the equation. For another, our mental models might simply not cover the circumstances. And finally, the model we apply might be too narrow to allow extension in case of new evidence. There are probably other important cases to consider, but those three are for me the main causes of continued misunderstandings and misinterpretations.

In short, we have to interpret reality to make sense of it–it’s simply too complex to be taken as is. But I believe we should always leave room for new data, new contingencies, and new models or extensions to old models. Then, maybe, we can find a way of using this necessary function of reducing reality to a small set of models even more efficiently and life-supporting.

Finding my way home…

For me, it was a strange sensation when I realized on my way to Zurich airport that I might be stranded at a place where I had never been before: the somewhat unwelcoming possibility of not “getting home” after a long journey mingled with the exciting possibility of exploring some location that must certainly hold at least a few discoveries to be made. But I’m jumping ahead already… Uhm, given that this will be a recounting of personal experiences, I hope you won’t be bothered too much if I overshoot my usual length limit of about 1,000 words per entry.

As I explained in the overview, I was traveling on a buddy pass, which meant that my flight would only work out under the condition that enough empty seats remained available at the time of boarding. Needless to say, on my desired return date, Monday the 24th of June, this didn’t work out–indeed, next to myself, 11 other people didn’t make it. And the gate crew told all of us that the situation would only get worse in the upcoming few days, as, besides whoever of us would try again, there would be additional “buddies”, trying to fly out from Frankfurt to JFK, probably until the weekend. Bummer!

Not yet knowing what plan B would going to be like, the feeling sank in that I was temporarily stranded, and I felt immensely grateful that my stepmom had suggested, even insisted, that she and my dad would remain close at hand, “just in case.” So, I took my checked bag from the belt again and, exiting through border and customs control with a feeling of this whole experience being some sort of a bad joke, rejoined them shortly afterwards.

Upon my inquiry at the Delta ticket counter as to what other options might be available to return to New York the next day, I was told that flights with some more empty seats available would go out of Amsterdam and Brussels via Detroit and also one from Zurich directly to JFK. The number of empty seats was greatest for the Zurich option, and with a strong desire not to repeat the experience of rising excitement at the gate followed by a complete anticlimax upon realizing I wouldn’t be flying, I opted to go to Switzerland.

This flight was scheduled for 10:30am and I suddenly became aware that if I went to my brother Bernd’s place, I would yet get to see my six-week old nephew Vincent, and I must admit I felt a great sense of joy. Fate had seemingly dealt me a blow, but one that would allow me to actually experience something I had wanted very much, not gotten the chance to, and then being given the opportunity after all. Planing ahead, I found out that a train leaving my brother Bernd’s place at 8:30pm, with a 4-hour layover at the station at Frankfurt airport, would bring me to Zurich nicely at 8am the next day. So much for the plan…

After the decision was made, my dad dropped me off at my brother’s place, and I enjoyed three and half hours of nephew awesomeness. Holding Vincent in my arms, rocking him gently back and forth–I have a video that Bernd took, which easily brings tears into my eyes–was a wonderful and quite deep experience. Finally I could grasp the reality of being “Uncle Joey”. Bernd, Daniela, and I had a small dinner together, and then I was dropped off at the train station with a feeling that this one-day delay had all been worth it!

The short ride to the train station at Frankfurt airport was uneventful, and after realizing that almost all of the little shops, cafés, and facilities inside the train station were closed after 10pm, I decided to wait at the arrivals hall inside the airport terminal instead, which brought about the actually adventurous part of my journey. I had taken a seat at a little counter for travelers needing to charge some piece of electronic equipment, and after calling my mom to say good night, I began to read one of the books I had bought at the high school reunion.

A few minutes later, a woman approached me and another fellow traveler sitting next to me, inquiring about an issue she was encountering with the WiFi connection on her cell phone. As it turned out, she had used up the 30 minutes of complimentary Internet service, and my suggestion was that she could use any other device she carried, such as a laptop. Normally, I might have simply gone back to reading my book, but my somewhat heightened sense of care and supportiveness brought my attention back to her every once in a while, and so I realized that she was stranded herself, trying hard to find a resolution to her predicament.

After a while, I decided to “make contact”, and I inquired about what exactly happened to her. She explained that she was on her way back home to Geneva, and that she had arrived from Kathmandu, but missed her connecting flight due to a series of unfortunate events–which would be too much to be told here as well… Long story short, she needed to find a way to rebook her flight to the next possible one: her son’s high school graduation ceremony was set to take place at 2pm the next day, and if at all possible she wanted to be there on time.

As it happened, I had opted for a flat-rate tariff on my German SIM card, and so I decided to let her make use of the air time by offering her to use my cell phone to make a few phone calls and inquire about the possibility for rebooking the flight. Unfortunately, after a series of calls to her traveling agency, her husband, and then to the Lufthansa service line in the US, it turned out that the only way to rebook her ticket was to wait at the terminal until the counters would open the next morning. And one of the phone calls I had even made myself, as Sharad–I was pleased to make the acquaintance of–was trying to get some more information from her husband via Internet based text chat.

By that point I had figured out that my train would be another option for her to get home, with her needing to transfer at Basel to Geneva, and me transferring at the same station to a train going to Zurich airport. And when I made the suggestion, Sharad seemed actually excited, but what about the luggage? That hadn’t been released to her, given that she had been checked in on her connecting flight.

So, during a longer phone call she made, I took it upon myself to inquire with a guy from the information desk–to the utter astonishment of Sharad, as I left her with my cell phone–and together we managed to convince the people from the Lufthansa baggage service personnel that her suitcase would be sent to Geneva airport the next morning even though she had missed her flight. After Sharad heard the news, and actually confirming the arrangements in person, we left the airport together, bought a train ticket to Geneva, and then had about 30 minutes left at the train station before our journey together was to begin.

It was a funny moment when, in the middle of a conversation we had started about my work at Columbia, Sharad suddenly inquired about my name, realizing we had been working so intently on finding a way for her to reach home early the next day without ever formally introducing ourselves. And from that moment on, I somehow felt that I had made a good friend. The train arrived with about 20 minutes delay–Deutsche Bahn not living up to its reputation but very much fulfilling the by now quite often encountered stereotype. After we located our car, which had a series of reclining resting chairs, I inquired whether I could change seats so Sharad and I could travel together, and then a quite long and interesting conversation ensued, both about her work and two-week trip to Nepal and my current interest in emotion and motivation and their relevance for communication and relationships.

At some point a fellow traveler reminded us of the time, and we decided to try to take a little nap. It was around 4:40am when I realized something wasn’t going according to plan: the train wasn’t moving any longer. We had stopped at a train station some time earlier to receive additional cars from a train coming from Berlin, and when I asked the conductor, I was told that this train had a one-hour delay due to a storm, and I began to have a first small “pinch” of the feeling I might not make it to my flight. After returning to my seat, I found I had woken Sharad and I told her about the delay. Knowing that her husband might be a little worried about her impromptu decision to take the train, she sent him a text message from my phone, and then we waited. But this wouldn’t be the only delay…

After only another half hour or so of moving, we stopped again at a train station where we weren’t even supposed to. As it turned out, our train itself was facing a technical malfunction, and the engine needed to be replaced, which took close to an hour and a half, by which time I was certain that my flight would be taking off without me. Luckily, the lady at the Delta counter had given me her direct number at the ticketing desk, and so, shortly after 6:30am, I was able to reach her and rebook my flight to Wednesday. And that was when I learned just how much of a friend I had made during the past few hours…

As I was telling Sharad about my plans to go to Zurich and stay at a hotel, she simply suggested I could join her and her family at the high school graduation in Geneva and then make my way to Zurich from there. At first, this seemed like too much of a detour–the train ride from Geneva to Zurich would be another three hours, but the prospect of spending more time with a new found and already very feeling-close-to friend was indeed much more appealing than the idea of ending up in a city where I wouldn’t know anyone. So, at the train station in Basel, while I was rebooking my train ticket from Zurich to Geneva, Sharad bought some food for the remaining train ride, and we had yet some more wonderful exchange of thoughts, all the while some very stunning landscapes passed by–not all of which I was giving their deserved attention, as I was still much more interested in hearing about her experiences in Nepal and relating some of her work with what I am interested in.

By now my German SIM card had become useless, and I managed to ask a couple of travelers in probably very funny sounding French whether we could briefly use their iPhone for a quick call to Sharad’s husband, Satya, who would then know about the time of our arrival. And so we made it to Geneva with about two and a half hours of delay–at least relative to the original arrival time my friend would have gotten there. We then took the tram to the western outskirts of the small but fairly cozy city at the lake, and arrived at Sharad and Satya’s place just in time for a brief but most delicious lunch that he had prepared for us and then each of us took quick shower and changed into fresh clothes so we could attend the graduation ceremony of their son Eklavya’s “in style”.

This event would deserve its own little story, but suffice it to say it was almost as extravagant as some of the ceremonies I’ve witnessed in the US; quite more so than what I remember of my own Abiturfeier. After the official part with a few speeches–as I learned that day, my French is still good enough to follow a lot of what’s going on–, some live music presented by some students, a video collage showing the quite eventful past year, and the final handing over of the actual diplomas and special awards, there was a small reception. I only took one or two small snacks, having been well fed by the food Sharad had gotten at Basel as well as Satya’s superb cooking, and then decided to play a bit on the piano, and what a well-tuned instrument that was (I wish I had one of those…).

Next, we went back to Sharad and Satya’s place where I was given the chance to rest a little. And then I was asked to join a small dinner celebration in honor of the graduate, which gave me the first real opportunity to also connect with Satya and Eklavya. Satya told me a bit about his work and I heard about Eklavya’s plans which university and program to go for. Our conversation then became much more broad, such that we discussed what career options would be most likely to lead to a fulfilling work experience, and it was then that I once again realized how much I had liked the idea of being a teacher, helping others finding “their way”, but that the reality of how school-based education is organized in many places, focusing on and pointing out failures rather than allowing people to naturally learn from any mistakes they make, I had decided to take a different route altogether.

When it was time for me to go back to the train station, Satya then suggested that given the flexibility of my flight ticket, I could just as much stay over night, have a decent rest, and enjoy another day in Geneva. Initially I felt that would be stretching my good fortunes, but then again I also wanted to experience more of the wonderful new friendships I had found. And so I decided to ask my friend working at Delta to rebook the flight–once more! Seriously, I hope he will not tell a completely different story about my travels, saying that I have been such a pain in the butt, that he will never ever talk to me again.

The rest of the evening then was a most pleasant affair, sitting on the sofa in a living room with a veranda, sipping away on a cup of green tea, followed by another hour of talking to Satya about some of the more practical issues he was encountering at work. And then, finally, I went to bed after not sleeping properly for more than 36 hours. I’m still surprised at how refreshed I felt the next morning, and after taking a shower and having some breakfast I was eager to see Geneva. Satya had just called Sharad, asking her to drop off a sweater, as the weather had turned out to be rather “nippy” (chilly) and then we took the tram back to the city.

Since we were talking so vividly on our way, it was no wonder we ended up missing our transfer stop and so we decided to walk from the tram all the way first to the U.N. Palais and then, a little further, to the W.H.O. building where we would meet Satya for an early lunch and a tour of the building. The cafeteria there offered some excellent salad options, and the rooftop view simply is gorgeous. On our way through the building we ended up running into several people who knew Sharad–she also had worked for the W.H.O. before.

It was about 1:30pm when we left to make our way down to the lake. From there we took a nice stroll towards the old town of Geneva, where we had a wonderful snack: sharing two crêpes, one savory with gruyère and ham, and one sweet with banana and chocolate spread, and a coffee. Well, that is, Sharad had an iced coffee and I got myself a scoop of pamplemousse (sweet grapefruit) ice cream. It was one of the funniest moments of the day when then two ladies behind the counter started laughing out loud after I tried to explain that the iced coffee was not to be made by adding the pamplemousse flavor–something certainly made more hilarious by the fact that my French speaking capabilities are fairly limited…

Given that stores in Geneva usually all close at 7pm, we then decided to stroll a bit through the “downtown” area, window shopping. We also got my train ticket for the next morning, and then went on finding our way to the cathedral in the center of the old town that offers a most stunning and panoramic view over the lake and the surrounding parts of the city. Before returning home, we still took the chance to look at some of the sights close by, including the famous “reformation wall”, and, right next to it, an end-of-school-term fair that was going on, where kids were wearing all sorts of hand-made hats, which made everything look even more like a fairy tale…

The only thing we didn’t manage was doing the groceries shopping for dinner, but Satya was way ahead of us! When we arrived, a most delicious assortment of food options was already in the making: Indian style chicken, with home made rotis, and some spinach with cheese and the typical yoghurt to help a bit if things are too spicy. After dinner, we sat with a glass of Kir, and then Sharad, Satya, and I spent about an hour or so talking about the fundamental differences between European, American, and Indian culture. Another feast, this time for the soul and mind!

And now my story is turning to an end (at last!!). The next morning I had to wake up at 3:30am, as my train would leave from Geneva main station at 4:50, and I had to take a cab there, which Satya had ordered to be at their place by 4:20. Once in the train, the trip to Zurich turned out to work like a charm, just as Sharad had predicted and Satya commented on: Swiss trains are always on time, even so much so that if you think they’re late you may as well check if your watch isn’t ahead of time!

During the entire remainder of my journey, while riding the train to Zurich, flying to JFK, and then sitting in the subway on the way to my apartment, I had this constant feeling of awe and bubbly fizziness that signifies that something most unexpected and thoroughly enjoyable had happened to me: out of the blue, I had made first one, then two wonderful friends, I had been welcomed into their home and had shared some incredibly valuable moments with them, and I believe that in the upcoming months and hopefully even years, I will “come back” not only to this memory, but also to this friendship with more opportunities to share meaningful experiences with Sharad, Satya, and also Eklu… Thank you so much for giving me all these precious moments with you!