Pentagon Research: Narratives Negate Violence?

BBC has reported on the Pentagon’s growing interest in the neurobiology of political violence, a relatively new field that combines neuroscience with more traditional social science-based approaches to understanding human behavior.

One program by Darpa is working on a project, Narrative Networks, that tries to “understand how narratives influence human thoughts and behavior, then apply those findings to a security context in order to address security challenges such as radicalization, violent social mobilization, insurgency and terrorism, and conflict prevention and resolution,” according to William Casebeer, the Darpa official leading the work.

If US officials had a device that could advise them what to say, generating a story based on a scientific understanding of the brain’s inner workings to soothe tempers and calm the mood of the population, would it be beneficial to not only the US, but the world?  It can be and is considered by some to be a nonviolent way to create change.

Dr. David Matsumoto, Director of  Humintell & the Director of the Culture and Emotion Research Laboratory at SFSU, has been recruited by another Pentagon initiative, Minerva.  His mission is to conduct scientific research on the role of emotions in inciting political violence.

Dr. Matsumoto and his colleagues are doing this by studying the facial expressions and language used by political leaders to see if those can be used as predictors to  future violence.  He states,

“I think that one of the most logical direct applications of this kind of finding and this line of research [is] to develop sensors that can watch, either monitor the words that are being spoken and/or the non-verbal behaviors that are expressive of those emotions,” he says of the Pentagon’s interest in his work. “I think the development of sensors like that … would be sort of an early warning signal or system [to detect violence].”

Should we celebrate the non-violent, non-confrontational path the government is taking in their effort to ease tensions and violence among the world’s people?

The article goes on to ask a more fundamental and perhaps important question, which is whether such research will actually help the Pentagon convince people that the US military is really there to help them.

“None of the work we are doing, nor anyone else I know in the Narrative Networks group, is about increasing the ability of soldiers or sailors to kill people or to brainwash people,” says Paul Zak, a professor at Claremont Graduate University, who specializes in neuroeconomics, and whose work has been funded by the Darpa program.

Read Montague, a neuroscientist at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute and also a part of the Darpa Narrative Networks Project states,

“I see a device coming that’s going to make suggestions to you, like, a, this situation is getting tense, and, b, here are things you need to do now, I’ll help you as you start talking.  That could be really useful.”

What do you think?  Could this research be beneficial in curbing violent acts?

One response to “Pentagon Research: Narratives Negate Violence?”

  1. Jacqui Feeney says:

    I think, if a devise can assist in calming violence before it happens, it will also be able to assist in the opposite. Not a good thing if only to be used by government.

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