Friend or Foe? The science of empathy and relationships explained.

Social experience is as important to our wellbeing as physical environment. Research suggests that our innate neurological threat-reward systems are activated not only in response to basic physical stimuli such as food/hunger, pain/pleasure, etc. but in response to five basic social qualities:

4. Relatedness

We all know the feeling of meeting someone completely new. There’s a slight tension and greater alertness: the classic fight-of-flight response. In fact, our brain is programmed make a judgement about each new person we meet in order to assess the risk of the situation.

“The decision that someone is friend or foe happens quickly and impacts brain functioning (Carter & Pelphrey, 2008). For example, information from people perceived as ‘like us’ is processed using similar circuits for thinking one’s own thoughts. When someone is perceived as a foe, different circuits are used (Mitchell, 2006). Also, when treating someone as a competitor, the capacity to empathise drops significantly (Singer et al, 2006).”
(SCARF white paper)

If the initial interaction and conversation goes well then you get a sense that you are ‘warming’ to the other person. This feeling appears to relate to the release of oxytocin in the brain, a natural brain hormone associated with affiliative behaviour (Domes et al, 2007). It has been suggested that oxytocin not only allows us to bond with another person, but also helps us overcome existing preconceptions or stereotypes by easing the process of ‘unlearning’, an important point for conflict resolution. Oxytocin is known to be release in particularly large quantities at the start of new romantic relationships and when people become parents.

“Studies have shown far greater collaboration when people are given a shot of oxytocin, through a nasal spray. (Kosfield, 2005).”
(SCARF white paper)

Relatedness and its importance in in organisations and schools is not a new idea. ‘Team Building’ exercises are very common, although if these are implemented by simply throwing a group of people together at random then you’re not likely to get a great response. The key is to explore ways that people can see team members, colleagues and classmates as ‘like me’ in some way. This is important to counteract feelings of loneliness.

“the human threat response is aroused when people feel cut off from social interaction. Loneliness and isolation are profoundly stressful. John T. Cacioppo and William Patrick showed in 2008 that loneliness itself is  a threat response to lack of social contact, activating the same neurochemicals that flood the system when one is subjected to physical pain.”
(Managing with the brain in mind)

So what lessons can we draw from this for teaching and learning, school leadership and education policy?

Teaching and Learning

First and foremost this article should hopefully help to further dismiss the adage of ‘don’t smile before Christmas’. It is immensely important that students create a warm relationship with their teacher. When this happens then the empathy created will foster greater trust and better behaviour. The best teachers always take time to know and understand their students and try and relate to them.

It is also important that students relate to each other. In secondary schools in particular there are many different classes with different groupings, and teachers shouldn’t ignore the importance of relationships between students. Peer collaboration is a powerful learning tool, but won’t be possible until relationships have been properly established.

School Leadership

Professional development happens much more effectively when teachers collaborate, not only with performance managers, line managers and mentors, but with other members of their departments. The best school leaders encourage social activity within and outside the classroom, and give staff an opportunity to learn together. Teacher sports teams, yoga classes, choirs, etc. are all excellent to create useful relationships, but you may also like to experiment with a display of teacher photos with accompanying brief ‘biographies’ including interests. School leaders need to participate in this as well: a cold, aloof management team reduces trust, and means they are less likely to hear about problems until too late.

Education Policy

Politicians have left a trail of PR disasters as they attempt to wear baseball caps and proclaim ‘pop’ music tastes in an attempt to make voters think they are ‘like me’. When you’re in charge of such an enormously diverse group of people then the values and consistency demonstrated by your actions will be more important.

When management teams or ‘superheads’ are placed in schools then there needs to be serious time and effort put in to building relationships with existing staff, students and parents. New federations or chains cannot hope to pull together successfully unless they give time for staff to get out and visit colleagues in other establishments.

Summary

  • We are tense when we meet new people. Our fight-or-flight response kicks in.
  • ‘Warmth’ between people occurs when they find similarities, and this can help break down stereotypes and preconceptions.
  • Loneliness can be a severe problem, with mental repercussions similar to physical pain.
  • Effective organisations work on trust and empathy between staff, and it is worth spending time on relationships, although crass attempts at ‘team-building’ can be counterproductive.

Biography

  • Managing with the brain in mind, Strategy Business magazine issue 59, Autumn 2009.
  • SCARF360 white paper, David Rock, NeuroLeadership journal, issue one, 2008
  • Carter, E. J. & Pelphrey, K. A., (2008). Friend or foe?
    Brain systems involved in the perception of dynamic signals of menacing and friendly social approaches. Journal
    Social Neuroscience, Volume 3, Issue 2 June 2008 , pages 151-163.
  • Mitchell, J. P., Macrae, C. N., & Banaji, M. R. (2006). Dissociable Medial Prefrontal Contributions to Judgments of Similar and Dissimilar Others. Neuron, 50, 655-663.
  • Singer, T., Seymour, B., O’Doherty, J.P., Stephan, K.E., Dolan, R.J., Frith, C.D., 2006. Empathic neural responses are modulated by the perceived fairness of others. Nature, 439, 466-469.
  • Domes , G., Heinrichs, M., Gläscher J., Büchel, C., Braus, D., Herpertz, S. (2007). Oxytocin Attenuates Amygdala Responses to Emotional Faces Regardless of Valence. Biological Psychiatry, 62(10), 1187-1190.
  • Kosfeld, M. Heinrichs, M., Zak, P. J., Fischbacher, U., & Fehr, E. (2005). Oxytocin increases trust in humans. Nature, 435, 673-676.
  • Cacioppo, J. T., & Patrick, B. (2008). Loneliness: human nature and the need for social connection. New York: W. W. Norton and Company.

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