If we’re careful to print and consume media that promotes empathy, it could change what we’re experiencing on the ground.
A few weeks ago some major French newspapers decided to stop publishing the photos and names of terrorists. It was days after dozens of people were killed in a brutal attack in the coastal town of Nice, and the global community was scrambling to find out more about the violent man behind the wheel.
Publications including Le Monde and La Croix were making a big statement by refusing to participate in what they called a "strategy of hate." Terrorist groups like ISIS and Boko Haram thrive on media attention, claiming attacks and terrorists as their own and pushing their message through social media and YouTube. Headlines can feed their pride.
But the French media's decision struck me as more than a reaction to the horror—these narratives of killing can have a profound effect on our brains and minds. As a consumer and producer of media, I think what the publishers in France are trying to do by withholding these clickable details could be a poignant experiment in fighting violence. And there's plenty of science to support it.
In the 1980s an Italian neuroscientist named Giacomo Rizzolatti at the University of Parma identified specific brain cells called mirror neurons for the first time. These are the neurons that can fuel mimicry, imitation, and sometimes empathy when you see another person's actions. And they fire immediately.
In a simple example, mirror neurons are often behind what make you cringe when you see someone else get hurt. You can see yourself in their shoes, so their pain is your pain. In one experiment, researchers found that activating mirror neurons while numbing other parts of the prefrontal cortex actually made people more generous and ready to donate money for a cause.
But mirror neurons are also one of the reasons that people might mimic acts of violence that they see—whether it's bullying someone at school, or picking up a gun with intentions to shoot as many people as possible. "You can pick, you can choose. You can choose to imitate the victim or the aggressor," said Marco Iacoboni, a neuroscientist at UCLA who is researching mirror neurons.
In his book Mirroring People, Iacoboni says the concept of imitative violence, powered by mirror neurons, is evident in children who watch violence in the media. Show kids a violent film, he writes, and they exhibit some aggressive behavior right after. (This does not mean they necessarily become more violent people.) And in real life, this could account for the 350 threats of school violence that directly followed the Columbine High School shooting in 1999.
"You can pick, you can choose. You can choose to imitate the victim or the aggressor."
It's harder to tell in adults, because we've had more time to develop the other factors that determine how we react to what we see. Many other parts of our brain are shaped by a combination of nature and nurture, like the amygdala, a mass of cells involved in processing our emotions and motivation. And these influence what Iacoboni calls the "control" in reference to mirror neurons: the forces that can stop us from following the mirror neuron-like impulse to mimic and react.
"You can think about mirror neurons as the fast guys—they're automatic, I see you making an action, my brain gets primed. But then there's a control, where you're like 'I don't want to do it,'" he said.
Recipe for Disaster
That part we can control is heavily dependent on our experiences and worldview. And there's no doubt that the society and ideology that we're surrounded by makes a big difference, said Douglas Gentile, a longtime researcher of the psychological impact of violence in the media at Iowa State University.
This is not about watching a violent movie or playing a video game and becoming more aggressive. There are layers of factors that comprise our behavior, from the stress we endure to our environment. So someone watching the terrorist who tore through Nice would be more susceptible to acting out if they identify with the attacker more than his victims.
"We've made online heroes out of them. We call them lone wolf—that sounds cool. Terrorist—that sounds cool to people who want to be that."
But Gentile, who has taken an oath never to name a gunman in his public talks or teachings, said the media has a significant responsibility, too. When media outlets print the name of a school shooter, describe the weapon and route he used to kill multiple people, and publish a large photo with their article, they are essentially presenting a recipe for someone to do the same.
"We've made online heroes out of them. We call them lone wolf—that sounds cool. Terrorist—that sounds cool to people who want to be that," Gentile said.
I asked him if he thought people had a right to know the names and backgrounds of people carrying out hatred and attacks. He said it isn't yet clear if that kind of transparency wasn't productive—in fact, it could just perpetuate stereotypes and make people turn against people with the same background. "Does it actually help you? Does it change your life in any way?" he asked.
Both neuroscience and behavioral psychology support the most optimistic part of this whole discussion: that both our brain and behavior is malleable. No one is innately and permanently wired to be violent, operating only on the impulse of their mirror neurons when they see violence in front of them. Nor do we need to completely stop reading, or learning, about mass shootings and their causes if we want to be peaceful.
A lot of that work is geared toward building empathy to prevent violence.
Iacoboni said it's not yet clear what helps us build control over our mirror neurons and violent impulses, but it's becoming more obvious that connecting with people and meditating can help. "You have to try to get attuned to others, pay attention to what they do," he said.
A lot of that work is geared toward building empathy to prevent violence. Gentile pointed out that Japanese media consciously focuses on the victims of attacks rather than the perpetrators. When something terrible happens, there are photos of people in pain and people suffering, rather than the person who caused the suffering. People identify with this, rather than the violence. Japan, meanwhile, has one of the lowest crime rates in the world.
And it is, in a sense, what the US has done around the subject of suicide, after it became apparent that photos and stories about people committing suicide could actually encourage other people do it more often.
This could be what some French media companies are looking to do with the new soft ban on the names and photos of terrorists. If we're careful to print and consume media that promotes empathy, it could change what we're experiencing on the ground. Or build on what we often forget: that there are a lot more peaceful people in the world than violent ones.
"Today 7 billion people are going to treat each other pretty damn well, and tomorrow, and the day after," Gentile said. "That's not the way we think about the world."