Samuel Veissière, PhD. 

Bio: An anthropologist and cognitive scientist by training, Dr. Samuel Veissière is Assistant Professor of Psychiatry and co-director of the Culture, Mind, and Brain program at McGill University.  He specializes in social and cultural dimensions of cognition, attention, and mental health from evolutionary and ecological (niche construction) perspectives.  His current research spans various topics from cultural factors in hypnosis, suggestion, and placebo therapeutics, hyper-sociality in smartphone addiction, social polarization, gender and men’s mental health, variational (free-energy) approaches to the evolution of cognition and culture, and agent-based modeling of joint-intentionality and complex social processes. 

TitleIdeological extremism, polarization, and violence: recipes and remedies

Abstract: Humans are by far the most cooperative of all species.  Before age 2, human children are intrinsically motivated to freely share information, goods, and services with others without expecting any reciprocal return.   Our ability to form joint goals, itself premised on the capacity to track and care about other people’s intentions, desires, and emotions has enabled us to build an immense repertoire of knowledge, skills, rituals, stories, tools, infrastructure, and chains of labour grown over many generations, and without which none of us could exist and function alone. But humans are also competitive, groupish, and – as evidence from across disciplines has repeatedly shown – highly selective in intuitively knowing whom to trust, learn from, cooperate with, compete with, care for, distrust, neglect, and hate.  In large-scale iterations, this process of selective altruism has repeatedly led to war, genocide, and the systematic subordination of entire classes of people whose roles and ‘value’ are determined through (often implicit) social conventions.   To understand these processes, we must in turn understand universal psychological mechanisms of cultural learning, related mechanisms of intergroup and intra-group competition – and in particular the uncanny human ability to detect social status and group affiliation. We must understand, in turn, the role of key attentional biases in determining which kinds of information will be made salient, relevant, and valenced, and so relative to humans’ position within their own group, and relation with other groups. 

In this talk, I will briefly review the role of these mechanisms in the modulation of “misinformation’ and group conflict, and will outline a 4-factor epidemiological model for individual, social, ecological, and content-specific vulnerabilities to extreme ideologies that accentuate group polarization and conflict. I will conclude with ‘recipes’ for creating clear expectations on the one hand, and a nuanced appraisal of others’ perspectives on the other.