Policing and the brain

https://edition.cnn.com/interactive/2022/10/uk/othered-systemic-racism-uk-gbr-cmd-intl/

Hi there.

In spite of what successive British government and opposition politicians had been saying for a long time, we now know that in Britain too, police officers often disproportionately target people of color and that they too often kill black people.

We also now know that appallingly misogynistic and racist views were rampant among far too many officers of the Metropolitan Police. There is growing extremism among police officers: https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2022/jul/10/growing-culture-of-extremism-among-uk-and-european-police-forces-report-warns

Perhaps it’s no surprise. Even the UK government has persistently been vilifying migrants for a long time and has even touted the myth that EU migrants are all low-wage, low-skilled labor, a cheap commodity on which the UK has been relying for far too long. In reality, we’ve been contributing a lot more to the UK’s coffers in terms of taxes than British citizens (and non-EU migrants). (See for example this article in the Financial Times.)

Boris Johnson was famous for ridiculing groups of people. He has used phrases like “girly swots” to describe studious people who work hard, “piccaninnies with watermelon smiles” to describe black people, “tank-topped bum boys” to describe gay men and “letterboxes” to describe Muslim women.


That’s otherization, a term apparently first used by Oxford neuroscientist Kathleen Taylor, for example in her 2009 book “Cruelty. Human evil and the human brain.” People also often call it “othering”.

…even mild otherization primes people for aggression”

– Kathleen Taylor

Talking about cruelty makes it easier to be cruel – unless one’s talk incurs swift punishment. Acting out the otherizing ideas, especially in a group whose members compete for status and egg each other on, can push people into extreme otherization with remarkable speed.”

– Kathleen Taylor

the difference between someone hurling verbal abuse at an immigrant and someone beating an immigrant to death is a difference of degree, not a difference in kind”

– Kathleen Taylor


Neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett also talks about this topic in her book “Seven and a half lessons about the brain”.

A“reason why people sometimes fail to to empathize with those who look different or believe different things than they do”

may be that “it’s metabolically costly for the brain to deal with things that are hard to predict”

– Lisa Feldman Barrett


Travellers, a nomadic group of people just like Sinti and Roma, are often instantly otherized and criminalized simply because their way of living is different.

The more familiar people are to you, the easier it is to empathize with them. There is a certain unpleasantness to learning something new, Feldman Barrett explains and that’s because the brain does not necessarily want to put in the work. The more we limit our interactions to “people like us”, the harder it is for us to empathize with others.

In other words, how our brains work can play a major role in otherizing behaviors. That is why pointing fingers and blaming people for otherizing behaviors is not always useful or the right thing to do even though it is very hard to avoid.

Politicians and other leaders, however, should know better than to encourage otherization. History has shown us how dangerous it is to sow division by pitching people against imaginary enemies and promising to defend them against that imaginary enemy in order to gain more votes rather than seeking to unite us.


I urge you to watch this video about policing and the brain, a panel discussion in which Lisa Feldman Barrett took part. It took place on 31 March 2021; I attended it in real time.

It will provide you with very valuable insights that make it easier to see where (some) police officers are coming from. They only have a split second to make their decisions and it’s usually their brains that decide for them. It also offers you examples of persistent myths that we should all keep countering with the real facts.

In the above discussion, Andre Davis, a former judge at the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit and former City Solicitor for Baltimore as well as an Advisory Board Member at Harvard’s Center for Law, Brain & Behavior, mentions how insular the police community often is.

In October 2022, I ran into a fragment of a BBC documentary that shows how prevalent this also is among British police officers. This is an example of what this means in practice.

It is highly commendable that this officer talks about it so openly. To a stranger, even. It makes me conclude that the mental health care for police officers is not what it should be. This officer has likely been under too much stress for far too long and may have felt powerless in many respects for far too long.

Imagine what it must feel like if you go into the world every day with the idea that you can’t trust anyone? Like you’re some kind of weary guerrilla warrior? At the same time, you are supposed to look out for and protect the people who you don’t trust. That’s gotta be very hard.

I think he’s quite an okay guy. What probably got to him at that point in time was the disappointment of having to start suspecting that this was not a simple case of a man who had gone missing and that he had to start looking at the son a little more closely. Thankfully, the son had merely been in a pretty stressed state of mind.

By saying what he said, this officer actually stopped himself from losing trust in absolutely everyone other than family and colleagues. He was facing his demons. It’s more problematic when police officers aren’t even aware that they’ve lost all trust (that this is not a normal, healthy state of being) and constantly feel like they’re on a battlefield.

Regular group laughter therapy might help a lot.

That particular police department does seem to need it: link. (And yes, PC Daniel Reed was sacked: link.)

If the topic of otherization interests you, then you should also watch this talk by Rebecca Saxe about the neuroscience of hate. She gave it at Harvard Law School’s Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics in 2019.

The more familiar people are to you, the easier it is to empathize with them, Feldman Barrett points out in her book, as I just said. That’s more or less also what Rebecca Saxe found.

Rebecca Saxe interestingly and importantly remarks that some people – notably liberals – tend to believe that more parochial people are less empathetic, but that this is not the case. They are merely committed to a different distribution of their empathy. The level of empathy they have is just as high.

We see other people as less empathetic, apparently, if they don’t empathize with the same beings that we empathize with? If they don’t hold the same opinions?

That in itself is also a form of otherization.

Otherization begets otherization.

Anyone who believes that mentioning the Holocaust is a “drag” also is likely to believe that the Nazis only targeted Jews. They targeted Jews and Sinti and Roma and disabled people and Jehova’s Witnesses and Slavs and dissenting clergy and others.

After the Holocaust, German people themselves were often othered, for decades, because of what they had done to so many millions of people who had simply been declared the German population’s enemy by the German government.

For those of you who get furious about slogans like “defund the police”, this slogan does not translate into “all police officers are rotten”. Police forces have become tools for the corporate world and are often no longer very effective in terms of protecting citizens.

Police officers are buried in paperwork, policies and the need to attain targets and make the effects of their work measurable. If people stop reporting crimes to the police, however, because they feel it’s a waste of time, it may look like the crime numbers are going down when they aren’t at all.

Job satisfaction tends to be very low among police officers, doesn’t it?

In fact, policing is increasingly becoming a threat to public health and that was never the intention of policing: https://gh.bmj.com/content/6/2/e004582

There is a need for new, more specialized organizations in which police officers are much better supported (and for which much better vetting takes place, I should add).

This can help too. It sounds like hocus pocus (I thought so too), but it’s very easy to do and you may find that it actually works. At worst, you’ll have lost a few minutes. If it works, you can remember the trick and do this whenever you feel like it. It can work very very very quickly to help calm and relax you.