Why We Fight and Punish: A Q&A With Robert Sapolsky

The author of Behave talks about why people so often don't.


Robert Sapolsky. Photo credit: Stanford University

"The current state of the country and the current state of political and intellectual conversation depresses me in a way that it never has before," the libertarian economist Russ Roberts wrote in a recent essay. "I know there's a lot of hatred in the human heart. It's nothing new. But what appears to be new at least in America in my experience…is a willingness to vocalize that hatred and to act on it."

I get where Roberts is coming from. To anyone who shares such feelings, I recomment Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst, a book by the neuroendicronologist and primatologist Robert Sapolsky.

Published in May, Behave is a colorful and intellectually rigorous tour of everything we know about the constellation of phenomena that shape our actions. Sapolsky is a materialist, and his observations (of which there are many) and prescriptions (of which there are few) reflect his conviction that human beings are the products of inputs they mostly didn't choose. Seeing the worst human behaviors as a result of bad programming—rather than the influence of a malovelent diety or a conscious choice to suck—has helped me feel compassion for people who irritate and/or scare me. But it will not leave readers with a sense that all is well, or that everything ultimately will be well.

I recently had the chance to talk to Sapolsky about a few of the topics his book tackles, from myths about hormones to the way we treat victimhood. I have edited our conversation for length and clarity.

Reason: You set the stage for Behave by stating that no one discipline can fully explain human behavior. It's genes, but not just genes. Neuroendocrinology, but not just that. Half a dozen disciplines have something to contribute to our understanding of why we do the things we do. After putting together an encyclopedic guide to all the factors that influence behavior, does the idea of intentionally changing behavior for the better seem impossible?

Robert Sapolsky: Fortunately, no. That's where, against my better nature, some optimism crept into the final section of the book. We've learned a lot about the incredible malleability of who counts as an "us" versus a "them," about all the hierarchies we hold in our heads at once and how we can shift their priority instantly, about the historical and psychological evidence that killing is a psychologically aversive things for humans to do and the inhibitions that can be exploited to avoid it.

I'm also endlessly impressed by studies showing just how powerfully—including at a neurobiological level—things like perspective-taking can be. Individuating people—seeing a "you" instead of a them—is just incredibly powerful.

In terms of a roadmap for how to do something useful, I tried to drive home in Behave just how little classic cognitive processes are relevant to this discussion. Over and over, what we see is that you can't reason someone out of a thing they weren't reasoned into in the first place. The emotional level, the implicit level, is really what the target should be.

Reason: And this is good news if you see advanced cognitive tools as being less effective for some people.

Sapolsky: Yes, though it's a double-edged sword. This research also gives us more insight into how to make people crummier to each other. The same knowledge that allows you to do pseudo-kinship allows you to do pseudo-speciation.

Reason: You focus a lot on adolescence, when humans are the most malleable. Adults seem to instinctively know this, and so they both fear teenagers and fear for them. But you also point out that malleability can be positive. It allows us to introduce younger humans to incredible things at a time when they're most open to new experiences.

Sapolsky: Yes, but again, like everything else, that malleability is double-edged. Adolescence is the perfect time to introduce someone to a horrific ideology that will, if they are lucky enough to escape it, take years to get out of. They can be turned on to violence and oppression. It's an age that just sops up social influences.

Reason: How do you process disagreement and social conflict? I tend to understand various skirmishes through the lenses of party politics or ideology. But I know class, race, and gender all play roles as well.

Sapolsky: I use some of the same categories. For instance, in my world of biologists—most of whom are evolutionary biologists to the core—we tend to throw up our hands that people continue to deny the reality of evolution. Inevitably, the point is raised that this view is heavily represented in the American South. And some biologists will say, "Well, yeah, this is where you have the most religious fundamentalism and the poorest education." The easiest explanation, which we often run with, is "Those people simply aren't very smart."

Far more fundamental to understanding their skepticism, in my view, is that this is the part of the country with the poorest health care, the shortest life expectancy, the lowest socioeconomic gradient. No wonder they're skeptical of a scientific stance that is two and a half steps away from Social Darwinism.

Reason: They got a raw deal, which is true of a lot of people everywhere. It sometimes seems like having been wronged is a kind of currency, and that we spend more time trying to rank our grievances than we do addressing them. Would it make more sense to say, "Every grievance is equally legitimate, now let's try to address them"? Or is it futile to attempt that?

Sapolsky: Well, you have to consider the weight of history. The Armenian genocide was terrible, but not as long or as impactful as American slavery. But it is also probably the case that—to borrow from a physics law—everybody's hurt expands to fill the space available, even if some wounds are, by outside standards, more painful than others.

What's distressing is the ease with which people and groups who really have been poorly treated come to a set of parochial conclusions rather than universal ones. It is not surprising, but also not great.

Reason: These seem like the kind of situations where taking perspective can be really helpful. I recently read a story about two people who didn't care for the other's politics being asked to read the other's first-person statement. If I'm remembering the story right, one of the participants was brought to tears by stepping into the other person's shoes.

Sapolsky: Individuating and taking someone else's perspective can be very powerful. But one of the lessons of contact theory, and from these heartwarming experiences about summer camps for Israeli and Palestinian teenagers, is that it doesn't come cheap. It's a lot of work, it often fails, and if you don't pay close attention to what you're doing, you can actually make things worse. But in principle, perspective taking, contact, and individuation are potentially very powerful tools.

Reason: You have a very civil libertarian perspective on criminal justice. Can you talk about some of the ways in which we're messing up juvenile justice in particular?

Sapolsky: Juvenile justice is probably the area that's most ripe for reform, in the nice liberal sense of the word, simply because there's no getting around the fact that a teenage brain is not an adult brain. The Supreme Court has now recognized that in three different rulings. It's an area that is the front line for reformers to introduce science into the criminal justice system.

But it's no more or less relevant than any other domain of criminal justice when it comes to the more fundamental problem, which is that because there's no free will, a system predicated on punishment and retribution makes no sense whatsoever. It's biologically unsupportable. When you get to that issue, nice, good-hearted fixes like making sure 17-year-olds can't be locked in prison forever or executed don't begin to address the deeper issue that none of this stuff makes any sense at all.

Reason: It's disheartening to see how hard-won these reforms have been. You highlight Miller v. Alabama, in which the Supreme Court ruled that life without the possibility of parole for juvenile offenders is unconstitutional. It's a great ruling, but it's terrifying that it took a SCOTUS intervention to stop the practice.

Sapolsky: That reflects the glacial speed of progress with this issue and the fact that it's an uphill battle to get people to think differently about the basic premises of the criminal justice system. Most of us believe people are responsible for their actions, rotten actions derive from rotten souls, and punishment is a virtue in and of itself.

Reason: We do love punishment.

Sapolsky: It does wonders for dopamine levels. But evolutionarily, it's costly. You better feel good about punishment because you have to pay a lot to cover police department dental insurance and other third-party costs.

Reason: There's a whole genre of lay-friendly neuroscience that's aimed at helping people lead more fulfilling lives. Your book is not written in that way at all, but I am curious whether you see untapped utility in recent neurosciences advances, and whether any of the research you've done has led you to change your own behavior.

Sapolsky: Well, much of my research over the years has been on stress, and the adverse effects of stress on the health of the central nervous system. All things considered, I've been astonishingly unhelped by my own research.

When it comes to how neuroscience could help the wider public, the worst thing is when we make advances in, say, mindfulness, and then decide that everybody can potentially think their way to curing themselves or develop their own psycho-neuro-immune mechanisms for boosting cancer defenses. Not only is it gibberish science, but you're setting people up for feeling as if they're to blame for illness. It's a new version of the Calvinist condemnation of disease as a sign of sin. The modern version is that disease signals a lack of sufficient motivation to get better, or nonsense like that.

Reason: It's interesting that you bring up the Calvinists, because their ideas, just like the conventional wisdom about punishment, are good-intentioned. Nineteenth-century public health reformers were rightly concerned about the squalid conditions of cities and the lack of sanitation, but they attributed disease and early deaths to people purposefully living the wrong way.

Sapolsky: Yes, and in that regard a similar advance in a parallel field is the recognition that alcoholism is a disease with biological underpinnings. That was one of the first and best attempts of getting people out of the mindset that it's about a lack of self-control, or a lack of discipline, or a failure to think of others. We're now starting to learn, for instance, that extreme obesity can involve screwy setpoints in the feedback loops for satiation in the hypothalamus.

Brains work differently among different people. Pancreases work differently. Fat depositions work differently. Those are all biological phenomena, and they're all domains where we're starting to make inroads.

Reason: And yet awareness at the top needs to be matched by awareness at the bottom. I recently read a post from a psychiatrist who's had patients reach the conclusion that because the first pharmacological treatment they tried didn't work for them, they were unhelpable. That they failed. And yet most doctors know that while one SSRI might work for one person, another person might be better served by a different SSRI, or a drug like bupropion.

Sapolsky: The notion that you should feel guilty for disappointing a health care professional, that you aren't serious enough about change, is a pernicious and bizarre part of this domain. These drugs are incredibly ad hoc in their mechanisms and in how clinicians choose who gets what. There is a high failure rate, and that is not a measure of someone not wanting to get better.

But the more that people can be taught, and emotionally accept, that these things are diseases—rather than self-indulgence or lack of gumption—the better. Major depression and major anxiety disorders are as much biochemical diseases as diabetes. And you don't sit down a diabetic and say, "What's with this insulin stuff? Stop babying yourself." If the biologizing of psychiatry for the lay public continues, that's the best outcome.

Reason: Speaking of myths: You have a section in Behave addressing the claim that testosterone causes violence. That seems pretty entrenched, but the research you highlight shows it's not accurate.

Sapolsky: With all the provisos of averages and individual variation—and the proviso that the behavior-testosterone correlation suggests behavior drives testosterone, rather than the other way around—what seems to be the finding in most research is not that testosterone makes you more aggressive, but that it makes you more responsive to the social stimuli that provoke aggression, or the environmental inputs that provoke aggression. It lowers the threshold for you to do whatever aggressive behavior it is you've previously learned to do in those situations.

Reason: I'm trying to imagine a journalist using the number of words necessary to adequately explain something like the relationship between a given hormone and various behaviors. But across the media industry, it seems as if the best way to understand neuroscience is also the way it's least likely to be communicated to the broader public. What are your thoughts on science journalism?

Sapolsky: Who has time for that, either to write it or to read it? Overall, the best thing that's happened with science journalism in the years I've been interacting with that world is education. When I first started out, the reporter I'd speak to would invariably have been on the city desk or the sports page and have screwed up royally, and their punishment was being exiled to doing the science column. Now you have science journalists with PhDs who decided that instead of running a lab, they wanted to write about the stuff. The level of education—that there are now masters degrees in science journalism—is just fantastic.

Reason: Last question. In the fields in which you work—neurobiology and primatology—what are you excited for? What are you optimistic about?

Sapolsky: From a primatology standpoint, I'm pretty damn pessimistic. I don't think I know a single field primatologist who's not seeing their animals or their ecosystem in some way menaced. So I'm not coming up with a lot of optimism there.

But something I'm kind of optimistic about is social media, which is just turning out to be so powerful. It's a way to subliminally reach people and get them to adopt completely different mindsets about "us"es and "them"s. For instance, we have the technological capacity for you to get up in the morning and watch a family, anywhere on this planet, eating breakfast, and subliminally, all you would get out of it is, "Wow, they're just like me."

The potential for that kind of thing has me slightly optimistic, even if what we've mostly seen is all the ways in which online communication is used to polarize people.

Reason: I've used social media for a long time, and these days mostly feel sad when I use it. But I love the idea that it could be a platform for helping humans see how similar they are.

Sapolsky: If the internet can be used, 24/7, to get you to buy—and buy into—all sorts of crap, it could certainly be used to sell prosocialty.