This Is Your Brain on Hate
Researchers are studying how extreme ideology may rewire people.
I went to Omaha to find out if the internet had ruined my brain. After arriving at a lab at the University of Nebraska, I was ushered into a room with a desktop computer and hooked up to a galvanic skin response monitor—those finger clips perhaps most commonly associated with lie detectors. Then I looked at a slideshow of images while a webcam traced the movements of my eyes and picked up on small facial cues. The devices were meant to gauge my unconscious reactions, or micro-emotions, using five metrics: joy, anger, surprise, fear, and contentment. Had years of scouring Reddit and 4Chan desensitized me or made me susceptible to alt-right messages? I was afraid of what the answer might be.
It wasn’t supposed to be me in that chair. I originally wanted to send the father of a man named Dave to the Midwest. I’d met Dave on an Ask Me Anything Reddit thread, where he was probing a former Klansman for advice about how to get through to his own blood. The 20-something had been trying to extricate his dad from the Klan since he was 14. As he told it, his old man first got sucked into some racist prayer groups after growing convinced that affirmative action cost him a job in middle age. His dad later became a bona fide white supremacist recruiter known as a “Kleagle,” only leaving the KKK when he disagreed with some of the anti-Semitic messages his buddies started spouting during Donald Trump’s campaign. But Dave (who would not give me his real name when describing his upbringing) had recently heard through the grapevine that his dad had been hanging out with the old crew again—a revelation that left him feeling as if his family might never reconcile.
The way he told it, a certain kind of back-and-forth with his dad had been the dominant drama of Dave’s young life. After high school, he attended a Jesuit university to study how racists use scripture and books like The Protocols of the Elders of Zion or even Mein Kampf to justify their beliefs. His goal was to understand the deeply flawed man who had brought him to cross burnings but never let him join along in heiling Hitler. “Not that I wanted to, but it is one of the little things that stuck with me,” Dave recalled. “I thought that maybe it was a sign that there was still good in him.” Though he’d dropped out of college, he still wrestled with the question of how the “sweet” man who gave him his first beer could also have forbidden him to hang out with his mixed-race cousin.
“I would like to help him,” he told me. “But at the same time, I don’t want to waste my energy on what seems to be a completely lost cause.”
I’d originally contacted Dave in May to write an article about his life and his struggles to extricate his father from a hate group. He asked me to verify that I was a journalist, and then we started chatting at length. But even though, at one point, he expressed how excited he was to finally share his story with someone who might use it to help others, Dave eventually stopped responding to my messages. Though it’s possible he lost interest in our conversation, it seemed to me that he got spooked by the idea that his grandparents—who he claimed may not have any idea about any of this and are well known in their small town—would somehow find out his dad’s dark secret. (He also didn’t respond to a fact-checker.)
Ultimately, I wouldn’t be able to achieve my original goal of telling Dave’s story in full. But I couldn’t stop thinking about certain aspects of it; namely, the idea of a father figure who was empathetic, but not apologetic. Dave hated what his dad believed, but at the end of the day, this was still his family. All he wanted was an explanation for why the primary male role model in his life turned out the way he did. Was his dad intrinsically racist, or did he simply not have anyone else to socialize with besides the KKK members who had embraced him? Or if he hadn’t started out racist, had he become so over the course of his associations? Was there a functional difference?
“There’s a serious debate in me whether or not the man I want to save even exists anymore,” Dave told me. “I feel like I wasted a lot of my time, and in all honesty at this point I’ve just been crossing my fingers and hoping someone else can do what I apparently couldn’t.”
Just after white supremacists marched on the University of Virginia campus in Charlottesville last year, the biracial writer Panama Jackson penned an essay about the emotional toll of extricating himself from a MAGA mom. Tales of people trying to get themselves out of hate groups have also become a popular essay genre under Trump. Meanwhile, less has been written about how the mental part of extreme racism—rather than the rudimentary, everyday, systemic stuff—might be identified and treated.
That’s how I found myself in Omaha. Plus, I figured, if I couldn’t help the distressed young man I met online find the answers he’d been seeking for a decade, then I hoped to at least learn about the most cutting-edge research on what hate does to the brain. As a journalist who spends hours per week wading through 4Chan and Reddit, I often wondered if I’d become irony poisoned, or at least jaded enough by the darkest pits of the web that my brain had somehow rewired itself to embrace the rhetoric I abhor. I seemed like a fine enough proxy by that logic.
“You’re safe for now,” a researcher named Pete Simi joked as I eventually joined him in another room to watch the results along with a business administration professor at the University of Nebraska Omaha named Gina Ligon and a handful of their students, who had come in on the weekend to show off their work as part of the Koraleski Commerce and Applied Behavior Lab at UNO. Together, we watched a recording of me staring at a rally adorned with red flags, and then a measurement showing that my “anger” shot through the roof when swastikas appeared. I was, not to put too fine a point on it, relieved.
After the notorious lynching of Emmett Till in 1955, the NAACP’s executive secretary, Roy Wilkins, addressed television reporters with what might now seem like a novel claim: The teen’s murderers were born with an immutable characteristic that led them to racial violence. “They had to prove that they were superior,” he insisted of the accused. “They had to prove it by taking away a 14-year-old boy. You know it’s in the virus, it’s in the blood of the Mississippian. He can’t help it.”
Wilkins’s speech was influenced by a broader post–World War II social-science effort to explain the root cause of racism as a psychopathological problem. The most influential work on the subject to come out of the immediate wake of the Third Reich , 1950’s The Authoritarian Personality, called the cluster of personality traits that allow for extreme racism the “f-syndrome”—“f” being fascism.
One of the book’s co-authors, Nevitt Sanford, argued that the authoritarian personality was “more or less normally distributed” in modern society, which is to say possibly inevitable. However, the successful implementation of civil rights legislation in the 1960s eventually inspired people to start thinking about racism as something that might be extinguished, or at least contained. According to a 2016 paper called “The Sick Racist: Racism and Psychopathology in the Colorbind Era,” this mind-set culminated in a group of black psychiatrists positing that bigotry was the opposite of normal—that it might actually constitute a classifiable mental illness. Chief among these thinkers was Alvin Poussaint, who argued after Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1968 assassination that extreme racism should be added to the Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) as a subset of delusional disorder.
According to “The Sick Racist,” the American Psychological Association (APA) rejected their argument for inclusion, using a study that showed equal levels of authoritarianism between Southerners and Northerners to push the line that racism was normal and thus didn’t count as a mental illness.
But the debate didn’t die down. At the APA’s annual meeting in 1978, a psychologist named Carl Bell argued that racism was basically just narcissistic personality disorder. In 1980, the APA president said it was the field’s obligation to finally decide whether racism was a mental disorder or a social problem. They didn’t. Unsuccessful attempts to settle the debate flared up again in 1987 and 1994.
Sanford’s normalization of prejudice—not as a good thing, but as an inevitable one—has lingered in American life. In 2005, the Washington Post published an article about the ongoing debate that claimed some medical practitioners were opposed to the idea of adding racism to the DSM because it would lead to “brainwashing” of people who exhibited “ordinary prejudice.” In a recent phone call, Poussaint, now 84 and the faculty associate dean of students at Harvard Medical School, said that’s still the predominant line of thinking. “The people who do the DSM won’t have it,” he told me. “They feel that would somehow be excusing people who are racist murderers as mentally ill.” And it’s true that painting hate crimes as the product of insanity could theoretically backfire in a legal setting—a Wyoming judge in Matthew Shepard’s murder trial famously had to bar a “gay panic” defense for one of the killers, though such a defense is technically still legally admissible in all but three states.
But even if much of the medical community remains uncomfortable with using clinical language to describe bigotry, regular people often seem eager to cite it as an explanation for bad or even vile behavior. When the baseball player John Rocker gave his infamous 1999 Sports Illustrated interview that was full of hateful remarks, the league’s commissioner ordered him to go to therapy. Both Michael Richards and Paula Deen claimed to be seeking help after using slurs. More recently, Roseanne Barr blamed the drug Ambien for her racist tweet about the former Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett.
Obviously, people undergoing public shaming stand to benefit when they claim ugly behavior was caused by forces beyond their control. But experts like Poussaint still seem to think that, even if altered brain chemistry doesn’t conveniently explain away racism, a person could be rewired to become less prejudiced.
“The media don’t point out the people who were racist and changed,” he told me. “It’s not common at all, but their life gets more balanced, they have less anxiety and depression, and they find these delusional beliefs disappear. But I bet it happens.”
Public figures who’ve famously sought help for spewing epithets are certainly more quotidian racists than your average KKK recruiter. But do members of hate groups become less extreme in their beliefs when they become more happy or centered?
That’s what happened to Tony McAleer, who started to question his involvement in the white supremacist movement when he became a father in 1991, and decided to leave around 1998, after something shifted inside him. Not that it was easy. In fact, in an interview I did with the guy, who since 2011 has run a nonprofit devoted to helping people leave hate groups, he described the drawn-out process as entering a kind of liminal existence he dubbed “the void.” After renouncing the neo-Nazi group White Aryan Resistance, whose slogan is “White revolution is the only solution,” he was no longer welcome at the house parties that had ordered his whole social existence in western Canada. Then there was the fact that his friends and family—whom he’d already traded in for a group of violent racists—weren’t exactly eager to have him re-enter their lives. Lonely, with nowhere to go, McAleer would frequent an Irish bar alone, get properly drunk and melancholy, and head home to blast old Skrewdriver records. Despite his desire to change, he’d find himself reminiscing about the fun he had with his old skinhead pals. It was at other people’s expense, sure, but even in the most dreadful of scenarios, he could find the positive experiences if he put on the right pair of rose-colored glasses.
“In those moments of extreme loneliness, I would pick up the phone and call the ones I knew I shouldn’t,” he told me. “But they were there.”
In a 1995 article “Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital,” the Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam argued that America’s democracy was weakening because people weren’t taking part in as many social organizations and clubs. The name of the piece, which later became a book so popular that it led to its author being invited to Camp David and interviewed in People magazine, came from the fact that from 1980 to 1993, bowling league participation declined by 40 percent, while the total number of bowlers rose by 10 percent. Besides that titular detail, Putnam outlined the fact that fewer dads were joining the Jaycees, fewer of their wives were joining Parent Teacher Associations, and fewer of their kids were joining Boy Scouts in part because of the influx of women in the workforce and greater geographic mobility. He argued that our society—once “enviable” but now populated by unmoored people who lacked purpose—was mostly prevented from engaging in civic discussion because its members were choosing to spend leisure time in front of a television rather than with other people.
Last year, the sociologist Michael Kimmel asserted in his book Healing from Hate that the same lack of access to social capital was often what spurred young people into extremism. When I interviewed him about it, Kimmel told me that the camaraderie they found in those groups was also what tended to keep recruits there long after they started to question white supremacy’s toxic conclusions. Just as McAleer described: Once you ostracize the rest of society with your abhorrent views, it’s pretty lonely to then abandon the only people left who accept you.
What’s more, the “tug-of-war” that McAleer went through sounded a lot like what Dave recalled of his experiences with his wayward father. “In a weird way, the Klan is a lot like a support group, just like Alcoholics Anonymous,” Dave told me, suggesting in part that the story of intractable racism has at least something to do with the desire to belong.
It’s obvious that some of the people who join these groups are on some sort of identity quest. So how can you stymie the growth of white supremacist movements when, as Putnam first argued convincingly in “Bowling Alone,” viable alternatives for association have been steadily decreasing for decades? There’s no doubt that the trend toward solo hang time has increased since the mid-90s. The cable news that seniors watch is partisan and serves to reinforce biases. Millennials prefer staying in to going out. Those younger than them are spending the majority of their waking hours on social media, which acts as its own bubble. It could be argued that increased participation in hate groups is a backlash to the isolation of modern life, or that this siloing of Americans has incubated more banal forms of racism and morphed them into something more extreme.
Simi, one of the researchers running the Nebraska lab, has a long Rolodex of both current white supremacists and formers that spans all three of those generations. As a young academic, he used to cold-contact extremists through PO boxes and ask to join them at their compounds. In 2012, he began collecting the life stories of his subjects to study the difficulties that come with leaving the far right.
A pattern emerged very quickly—many of the so-called “formers” complained about involuntary or unwanted responses they continued to have to certain environmental triggers. For instance, he spoke to a woman named Bonnie who described getting into an argument with a Latina fast-food worker and, in a fit of rage over her burger coming out too small, spewing a racial slur and saying “white power” while giving the Nazi salute. Afterward, she told Simi, she was “overcome by shame and disbelief.” In total, a solid third of the 89 participants he spoke to over the course of five years used the word “addiction” when describing their struggles to purge themselves of their toxic beliefs.
Simi explained to me that it was difficult to say why, exactly, his respondents chose that word. One theory he developed was that addiction might just be a familiar narrative in our discourse—the opioid epidemic is America’s worst-ever drug crisis, and society has evolved to be more sympathetic to substance misuse. Less charitably, some may just have been trying to absolve themselves of responsibility. But as Simi conducted his interviews, he started to think his subjects might be truly broken.
“One of the things, though, that became quite clear early on going back to 2012 were individuals reporting feeling like they may have permanently damaged their brain because of their involvement, talking about things being involuntary and unwanted, a kind of a lasting effect of sorts,” Simi told me. “People describing what in sociology we would call ‘identity residual,’ which is, once you’ve left an identity, there may be lasting effects or it may periodically come back. So there’s this potential for residual with any kind of identity, especially one that’s played a central role in a person’s life.”
Simi is among a group of researchers investigating how hate could leave long-term traces in our brains. In a pilot study conducted at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln this past summer, he and Ligon hooked up self-described former white supremacists to electroencephalograms (EEGs) and devices that track eye movements, showing them a series of images like the ones I was made to watch. Some were violent, others showed interracial couples, and a third set displayed symbols of white supremacist ideology, such as swastikas. At a separate lab, the Center for Brain, Biology, and Behavior, participants went through the same process while researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to map brain activity.
The study compared five formers with five mixed martial arts fighters; the latter were chosen as a control group because they were white males who had also engaged in their own form of aggressive behavior. Despite the very small sample size, the data yielded an intriguing enough start. For instance, when it came to the half of the group that consisted of formers, several regions of the brain lit up that did not among the control group. Noticeable divergence emerged in tests of areas governing the processing of faces, language, symbols, and characters, as well as emotional suppression, as early as 100 milliseconds after subjects saw the provocative images.
This comes with some caveats. For instance, it’s possible that because the people studied had consciously renounced white supremacy, more sophisticated brain regions like the middle frontal gyrus, which is involved in emotional suppression, kicked in to try to counteract that initial difference in processing or to suppress emotions associated with it. In other words, maybe they knew how they weren’t supposed to react. Still, the preliminary findings of the study suggested that people with a history of white supremacy fundamentally perceived these stimuli differently from the control group—and rapidly enough to suggest that it took place on an unconscious level.
For the study, Simi partnered with Ligon, who studies why people respond to certain consumer messages. She decided to turn her expertise toward radicalism—or what she called “terrorist brands”—after attending a conference where she learned that people with a certain attachment style were more likely to remember a specific product placement in a film if they were in a heightened state of fear.
“Theoretically , you get scared when you watch a horror movie, so you might latch onto a water bottle in a horror movie if you had this particular characteristic,” she told me. “It’s this crazy thing they were able to measure. And if you can do it with a horror movie and a water bottle, you can do it with an ISIS video.”
Now Ligon has turned to how propaganda works, and while it might not be obvious that a business school would be the place for research into radicalization, it does make a sort of sense. After all, the leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is technically selling something, whether it’s the promise of a life imbued with meaning or merely a sense of belonging.
What the two academics found in formers was a true cognitive dissonance: Although these people publicly disavowed white-supremacist ideology, they still exhibited spikes in “joy” after being shown a picture of a Nazi rally. The implication was that extremism was something you could never truly shake, no matter how much you might want to.
While the test I took did not suggest I had ruined my brain by trudging through racist forums and threads for work, it did give me a better insight into how “terror brands” can still affect a person outside the extremist fold. My joy response spiked when I saw a refugee family, a neo-Nazi family, and a group of kids going down a waterslide as part of some ISIS propaganda. My personality was apparently extremely susceptible to these kinds of family-oriented images.
But science like this only goes so far in offering hope to bridge divides like the one that opened up between Dave and his father. During our conversations, the 20-something said he eventually started to distance himself from his own family—including the man he’d hoped to save. “I want to be clear right now that I am not a racism apologist or defending my dad in any way,” he told me. “He has become a disgusting, evil person, even with his own apprehensions about the group he runs with. But I understand how he got there, and I feel like people are quick to demonize racists without really [knowing] how they got that way. No one is born racist, but millions of men and women just like my dad turn to that way of thinking, and based on what I saw and heard, they all arrive there through the same, or similar enough, experiences.”
People might rightly demonize racists, like Dave said, but we still haven’t agreed, at least on official levels, that their condition is a mental one that at some point goes beyond their control. And Simi says he would need to know much more about the neuropsychological architecture of the issue to ever be able to suggest any treatment or intervention possibilities.
“But in terms of cognitive behavioral therapy, it does give us a much better understanding of what we’re dealing with here in terms of how deeply entrenched some of this may be,” he told me. “So at the most basic level this tells us that, once you leave a group, that’s not the end of the story. I think that has pretty substantial implications.”
In other words, the latest evidence suggests that embracing hateful ideology can rewire you. That means once you’re in it, how you got there may not really matter.
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