The Neuroscience of Hate
What were the insurrectionists thinking?
This is a modified excerpt from Inside Your Head 🧠, a weekly newsletter exploring why your brain makes you think, feel, and act the way you do, written by me, Elemental’s senior writer and a former brain scientist. Subscribe here so you won’t miss the next one.
Last Wednesday was a dark day for the United States. I’m obviously not a political reporter, so I’m not going to talk about security breaches or the future of our democracy or just how terrifying and disgraceful what happened at the Capitol was (you should check out our sister publication GEN for those types of stories). But I am going to discuss what might have been going on in the brains of those who attempted the insurrection.
Your brain, feeling hateful
Hatred and violence toward another group of people is an extension — and perversion — of our natural human tendency to classify “us” from “them.” Evolutionarily, group membership and the cooperation it facilitates was essential for human survival. Our species forms alliances easily, sometimes based on genetic or familial ties but sometimes more arbitrarily. Take affinity for a certain sports team; it says nothing about a person’s qualities and offers no real benefits, and yet people have literally killed opposing team’s fans.
In-group/out-group categorizations are made almost instantaneously in the brain and, when paired with negative stereotypes, can result in feelings of fear, disgust, and dehumanization. Studies have shown that viewing pictures of people from a different race, for example, activates the amygdala — a brain region strongly implicated in fear. Seeing or thinking about an out-group like people who are unhoused or who use drugs can also dampen activity in the medial prefrontal cortex, an area associated with social cognition and empathy. This deactivation contributes to feelings of dehumanization — seeing the other group as less than human, which in turn leads to an increased risk for violence.
Other research has studied hate on an individual level. Neuroscientists in England found that looking at a picture of someone you hate triggers activity in four brain regions that they dubbed the “hate circuit.” It includes areas that process feelings of…