From Kindness to Cruelty: Katrina Fincher on the Duality of Human Nature

While countless writers, artists, and academics explore a certain duality in human nature, they tend to focus on the manifestation and effects of that divided self. Assistant Professor of Psychology Katrina Fincher asks a different question. She wants to know exactly what makes that duality possible within a single individual.

Within clinical psychology, this question is largely uncharted territory. “With a few exceptions, researchers have not examined the mechanisms which enable the same person to shift, quite rapidly, between kindness and cruelty,” she said.

While Fincher’s particular research interests developed during graduate school, they actually took root much earlier. Fincher’s mother grew up in Argentina during the country’s last military dictatorship (1976-1983), during which she saw her best friend kidnapped, her aunt imprisoned, and her cousin murdered. Her mother eventually started a new life in the U.S., where Katrina grew up. But summers were spent back in Argentina.

“From May to August, I lived in the shadow of [the regime’s] atrocities. However, most of the year I escaped to an idyllic American suburb, where I lived under the cushy regime of absent-minded academic parents and progressive schools, where safety was taken for granted and I had the luxury to learn empathy and compassion,” Fincher remembered.

That intimate experience of “emotional whiplash” – viewing firsthand the extent to which people could express capacities both for kindness and cruelty – fascinated her. But she never considered psychology research as career until she met her first mentor as an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania – the legendary Paul Rozin.

“Paul is one of the most incredible people you will ever meet, and he has such a profound intellectual curiosity that he will make you excited about nearly any idea,” Fincher explained. Inspired by her work with Rozin, which centered on disgust, she decided to pursue graduate work in psychology at Penn with Professor Philip Tetlock. Once again, the working approach Tetlock had to his craft proved more important than his particular interests. “For me research typically starts with people and the degree of intellectual chemistry we have,” she said. “I love the way [Tetlock] thinks and approaches problems,” Fincher said.

Her doctoral dissertation explored perceptual dehumanization, and her research since has broadly centered around “a wide range of issues related to moral psychology” and “the psychological mechanisms which enable humans to live in cooperative social groups.”

Fincher’s overarching interest in the psychology of sociality branches off in two distinct but connected directions. The first concerns the psychological mechanisms that enable empathy or cruelty; the second, the ways in which individuals relate to social values and norms. These two are connected because, according to Fincher, “we deny personhood to fellow human beings in response to social cues in order to facilitate behavior that upholds social systems.” In this sense, understanding the capacity for extremes of compassion and cruelty means understanding both individual psychological processes as well as broader social ones.

Fincher explores what scientists call “perceptual humanization and dehumanization”; in particular, “the psychological mechanisms which enable people to treat one individual callously and another kindly.”

From Fincher, K.M., Tetlock, P.E. & Morris, M.W. (2017) Interfacing with Faces: Perceptual Humanization and Dehumanization, Current Directions in Psy. Sci.

As illustrated in the above graphic, much of her research looks at the way people perceive one another’s expressions. “Not surprisingly, what matters a great deal is how you engage with the individual’s face. People visually process faces in two qualitatively different ways.”

In a humanizing mode, an individual will take in the other’s face as a whole, generally focusing on the eyes. By contrast, in a dehumanizing mode the observer’s eyes will drift from feature to feature, showing an inability to think of the other in holistic, humanized terms. Demonstrating this difference experimentally has been one of Fincher’s main accomplishments to date.

Yet she is also interested in the larger question: What accounts for this difference? What makes it so that an individual gazes upon someone in such a dehumanizing light? According to Fincher, there are three larger reasons: to enforce norms and facilitate. punishment; to tolerate the suffering of others in situations of high moral conflict; and to enable strategic decision-making.

“We deny personhood to fellow human beings in response to social cues in order to facilitate behavior that upholds social systems,” Fincher stated. “Humanizing perceptions are elicited in a cooperative context and lead to empathy, compassion, and the desire to fulfill another’s needs even at a personal cost,” Fincher said. “In contrast, dehumanizing perceptions are elicited in competitive situations and function to disengage moral restraint and lead to callousness, indifference, and the desire to ignore another’s pain even for no personal gain.”

In other words, our perception of others is largely determined by the larger institutional or social context, wherein the main determinants are norms and values. Here Fincher makes another distinction between “social norms,” which mean the ordinary socially accepted standards for acceptable behavior, and “sacred values,” which refer to the deeper underlying principles that govern which behaviors become normative or not. Theorists have taken norms to change more speedily than the more fundamental sacred values for any given society. Fincher questions that consensus, however. “[My] work shows that although people claim sacred values are absolute they actually function very similarly to social norms,” she said — work that the Army Research Institute recently awarded $1.2 million.

Since earning her doctorate, Fincher has been a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Management at the Graduate School of Business at Columbia University. There, she continued her research into and published several journal articles on a number of psychological phenomena connection to social and moral psychology, including perceptual dehumanization as well as the sacralization of social norms.

During her first year at NSSR, Fincher will be teaching classes on exactly those topics. In Interpersonal Interactions in the fall, she’ll work with graduate students to take a closer look at conflict, the social attributions we make about others, and how a social environment influences how we think and communicate. In the spring, she’ll teach a broader survey on moral psychology, and how morality and moral issues connect to recent sociopolitical issues – topics at the heart of NSSR’s century-long work engaging in the most pressing issues of the day.

Trump as History

In the months leading up to the 2016 U.S. presidential election, The New School for Social Research Professor of History Oz Frankel proposed a new course named simply “Trump as History.” It’s quickly become one of the department’s most popular courses among Eugene Lang undergraduates. Research Matters spoke with Professor Frankel about how he developed the class amid one of the most shocking electoral upsets in history.

“I was convinced it would never happen,” says Frankel, reflecting on the unexpected victory, “and [U.S. President Donald] Trump would be consigned to history” Hence the history course. Needless to say, things turned out differently. But while its initial framework had to change, the course took on a new purpose and significance.

The contemporaneous nature of the subject presents interesting challenges for a historian. “The problem is that Trump is a current event, he is a work in progress,” explains Frankel. This gives rise to a crucial methodological question: “Perhaps it’s too early to historicize him?” Instead, Frankel harnesses that very lack of historical perspective to demonstrate to students the value of thinking historically.

“I actually make the argument that the media is already thinking of Trump historically, but perhaps in the wrong ways,” Frankel says. The most popular of those ways is drawing historical analogies. “Trump is like…insert your preferred historical figure here. There are continual attempts to find some historical precedent, from Richard Nixon to Pat Buchanan to PT Barnum,” he explains. “There was also a drive to dig up — especially before the election — prophecies from the past that somehow predicted the rise of Trump, like the Philip Roth’s 2004 novel The Plot Against America, Richard Rorty’s 1998 book Achieving Our Country, or that Carl Sagan quote.”

Frankel sees these approaches as symptoms of a state of crisis and public bewilderment that pushes society to look to the past in order to grapple with the present. However, these efforts rely on a narrow conception of history and miss the important structural and historical roots of Trumpism. “Analogies are accessible, but they often reduce history to a succession of personalities. I address these popular comparisons with my students and we discuss why they constitute problematic ways to engage the past.”

In other words, bigger questions of how we think about history today, and what kind of historical consciousness is cultivated among the public, guide the course. These questions concern popular perceptions of history as well as “the kind of historical imagination propelling people like [Steve] Bannon or Stephen Miller” and “the influence in these two cases of [early 20th-century German philosophe Oswald] Spengler, with his organic and cyclical conception of history. It’s a very pessimistic, reactionary view.”

Frankel encourages his students to move past Trump as an individual and to think of Trumpism as a historical and political phenomenon. “Trump is a tool for thinking about patterns of American history we didn’t pay much attention to in the early part of the 21st century.” Specifically, Frankel guides students to narrow in on “the history of American populism, of racism, anti-immigrant sentiment and its historicity, issues of masculinity, politics and spectacle, as well as the subject-position of the businessman as a cultural hero. We also have the history of ‘fake news.’” Weaving these historical threads together allows the students to map “what was in the DNA of American democracy that was conducive to something like Trumpism.”

Drawing on a variety of sources, including journalistic articles, academic publications, films, and blogs, Frankel leads students through an exploration of each of the key themes that contribute to Trumpism such as populism. “During the election, Bernie [Sanders] and Trump were both being labeled as populists,” Frankel recalls. “In class, we explore the long historical arch of populism in U.S. history, which brings us to late 20th century, the Tea Party, current reflections on the idea of the white working class and the question of why people are ostensibly voting against their material interests.” Another theme is racial dynamics, especially the often ever-defensive identities congealing around whiteness. Frankel comments, “Why do whites feel threatened? Whiteness is usually ‘transparent,’ but when whites feel threatened, then they become white. There is along thread of paranoia and fear in American history.”

Related concerns about social and cultural decline — cross political divisions. Frankel assigns his students George Packer’s The Unwinding (2013), which weaves together short biographies that document familiar themes of de-industrialization, the demise of institutions, the unraveling of the American social fabric, and the ascendance of “organized money.” While the book’s thesis comes from the political Left, it also overlaps with Bannon’s bleak view of the trajectory of American history, encouraging students to think beyond entrenched political distinctions.

In addition to considering historical continuities, Frankel encourages his student to consider what is new and unprecedented about the Trump moment in American political life. While Trump’s seemingly improbable political victories throughout 2016 could be cast as a series of flukes that might have ended very differently, they also show us the importance of accidents and of individual agency in history. “Trump certainly has the capacity of creating a new political reality; he already took over the Republic party and introduced new dynamics into the American public sphere.”

Trump is titillating, and students — many of whom were not necessarily interested in history before — are eager to grapple with these issues, including their own role in the current political moment. Frankel insists upon it, remarking, “I ask students to reflect on our complicity in the Trump phenomenon, the near-addiction that we have all developed to Trump, something that’s become so ingrained in our daily existence.” And, for many, the very reason they signed up for the class.

NSSR Mourns the Loss of Professor Jeremy Safran

The entire New School community is shocked and saddened by the tragic death of Jeremy Safran, New School for Social Research psychology professor, former Department of Psychology co-chair, and an internationally renowned psychotherapist. This heartfelt tribute by Michael E. Gellert Professor of Sociology Jeffrey C. Goldfarb originally appeared in Public Seminar on May 8, 2018 and is reprinted here with permission.

This is a very sad day at The New School for Social Research and at Public Seminar. Jeremy Safran, a distinguished professor in our Psychology Department and a senior editor of Public Seminar, a dear colleague and friend to many of us, was murdered yesterday in his Brooklyn home. We are in shock, as we are trying to respond.

This morning, a community gathering was called by our dean, Will Milberg. Colleagues, administrators, and most movingly, Jeremy’s students visibly stricken with grief, tried to console each other.

An announcement was made by the co-chairs of the Psychology Department, Bill Hirst and Howard Steele (who also happens to be Jeremy’s first cousin):

“As most of you know, Jeremy Safran was brutally murdered yesterday. Jeremy’s contributions to the Department and to the field of Psychotherapy Research cannot be underestimated. He joined the New School faculty in 1993, shortly after the APA had placed the Clinical Psychology Program on probation. He quickly found himself Director of Clinical Studies and later Chair of the Department, and with characteristic energy and determination, worked not only to move the Clinical Psychology Program to full accreditation, but to make it the vibrant, respected program it is today. During this time period, he established a training facility at Beth Israel Medical Center, the low-cost New School Psychotherapy Research Program, and the Sándor Ferenczi Center. He was a brilliant mentor to many students and an inspired instructor.

Outside the New School, Jeremy’s intellectual curiosity and broadminded approach to all things psychological held him in good stead. He was an expert in Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy before he joined forces with Les Greenberg to provide the theoretical foundations for Emotion-Focused Therapy. He was also a preeminent psychotherapy researcher, studying the processes underlying rupture and repair in therapeutic alliances. He wrote or edited eight books and a large number of articles and chapters. He also developed for the APA a series of training DVDs. In recognition of his brilliant contributions, the Society for Psychotherapy Research awarded him their Distinguished Research Career Award and Division 39 of the APA honored him with the Award for Distinguished Contributions to Psychotherapy Research. He also served as President of the International Association for Relational Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy. Jeremy’s contributions did not end with his envelope-pushing research on psychotherapy or his knack for decisive institution building. He also wrote insightfully about Buddhism and psychoanalysis and on critical approaches to Psychology. In addition to his faculty position at the New School, he was also on the faculty of New York University Postdoctoral Program in Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis.

We want to extend our condolences to Jeremy’s wife, Jenny, and his two children, Ayla and Ellie. We will miss him.”

Jeremy appeared on Public Seminar as a public intellectual. He was an active member of our team from the very beginning. He took part in and informed our deliberations, as we launched and developed our venture in innovative publishing. He realized in his posts our goals: drawing upon his expertise, he addressed the non-expert public (including me) about “enduring problems of the human condition, responding to the pressing issues of the day.” He wrote many pieces and solicited even more from colleagues from around the world, and students close to home. He wrote one of our most popular posts, on the rise, fall and possible resurrection of psychoanalysis in the United States, “Who’s Afraid of Sigmund Freud?” I love the piece because it has been very popular and is also excellent. He critically reported on psychology’s involvement in America’s torture regime: “Psychology and Torture.” A few weeks ago he wrote “Authenticity American Style,” on “the meaning of authenticity in the era of “reality show” politics.” He combined sober professional judgment, with intellectual playfulness.

On a personal note: I knew Jeremy as a kind person, a gentle-man, also a bit forgetful, as am I. Although we were not intimate friends, we were close colleagues. I admired him for his commitments: mental health, personal wellbeing and the public good were not simply words for him. We worked together with mutual respect. I enjoyed him as a person. Last Thursday, we had our last monthly Senior Editors’ meeting for this academic year. He was late. I told my colleagues I thought this meant he wouldn’t be coming. When he arrived, I pointed this out to him. Since Public Seminar and The New School’s Publishing Initiative have moved up to their new digs, before each meeting, I received a note from Jeremy asking me to remind him where the meeting would be held. Last week, he came without asking.

An additional note from Ali Shames–Dawson, an important editor on our team:

“I am inclined just to add how much he brought dedicated students to Public Seminar — I am here because he insisted that we must speak immediately one day, my first ever Jeremy at-home phone call, and he excitedly told me of the opportunity to be an editorial fellow, back in 2015. Since then, he has solicited and supported a wealth of student writing and PS involvement, as was his way. His deep dedication to spreading his commitments, particularly to critical intellectual engagement beyond the boundaries of disciplinary psychology and in socially engaged scholarship, and involving students in meaningful projects is something I know everyone who reads this who knew him will appreciate and resonate with.”

Simon Critchley in Conversation: Talking about Thinking About Football (…or Soccer)

To mark the occasion of Simon Critchley’s newest book What We Think About When We Think About Soccer (Penguin Random House), Research Matters sat down for an hour-long conversation with the Hans Jonas Professor of Philosophy about the “beautiful game.”

____________________

Research Matters: I want to start by talking about time, or actually about temporality. One of the recurring themes in the book is the way soccer helps to explain the peculiar way our perception and affective experience of time are neither linear nor constant. Where are you coming from philosophically here, and how does soccer help punctuate and organize our experience of time?

Simon Critchley: Philosophers for the last century—[Henri] Bergson, and most importantly, [Martin] Heidegger—have been trying to talk about the experience of lived time; to advance the claim that lived time is not the same as clock time. Clock time is your sequence of now-points—not-yet, now, no-longer-now—as a linear, uniform continuum. Various philosophers have been arguing, rightly in my view, that that’s not how we live our fundamental experience of time. Time is something that is not linear. It’s not governed by the clock; it’s shaped by the environment, by the world that we’re inhabiting at that time.

In soccer, it’s a particularly compelling and obvious point. You have linear chronometric time, the 90 minutes of the game plus injury time, into two nearly divided 45-minute halves. So there is the objective measure of temporality. Every game lasts as long as the last game. But our experience of the time is very different. So you could do a kind of Einsteinian twin example and say, “Imagine there are twins watching the same game and they support opposing teams. The game is 1-0. One of the twins supports the team that’s winning, and the other twin supports the opposing team.” Their experience of time is fundamentally different. For one, the last minutes of the game—the injury time—are an agony of extended duration. For the other, time seems to accelerate, contract. So there you have an example of the way our experience of time is shaped by this game and how in passages of play [are] completely recognizable, but when you think about it strange things happen with time. That time can suddenly compress, that there can be a movement—a throw in, a flick-on, a movement between two or three players and then let’s say a shot or a goal—and that ten minute sequence of play can be experienced as a second. And they can be replayed! So time compresses and can have this largasso stretching effect.

This is what a lot of people who don’t get about football is that it’s fundamentally about time, but the time is not the stacatto stop-start of most American sports, whether it’s the stop-start of basketball or the usually stop-and-then-occasionally-start of baseball, which of course make perfect sense commercially. American sports were shaped for advertising, whereas football is this extended field of more or less movement. The question is what is happening at any one point. Something is always happening, but people aren’t necessarily scoring goals. So this idea that football is boring because it’s not 57-52 at the end of the game fundamentally misses the point that it’s about watching this extended flowing movement. That’s the joy of the game, it’s watching. There can be fantastic games where nobody scores.

RM: There’s something to be said about the way that is integral to the game, right? The management of time, especially in the midfield. People like [Javier] Mascherano are good because they can control the pace of the game, and move that pace in the direction that benefits the team. He can extend moments or quicken things. There’s something about the way the manipulation of time is part of the strategy.

SC: Yeah. Very clearly in the Argentinian game, the Uruguayan game, and the Italian game. Those three football cultures, which are incredibly important, are about time management and the idea that what looks to other eyes as a cynical, defensive football—that’s the game. I talk in the book about the joys of defensive football. The classical Argentinian teams I grew up watching were brilliant defensive teams that played in the Italian style. You set up to stop the other team scoring, and then maybe get a goal yourself. And that can be ruthless, but there’s a real beauty in that.

I think also about the phenomenon of cheating. I think there’s something really interesting. The dream of any sport is that there will be constitutional clarity about what’s going on and video evidence or whatever it might be. In many sports that is the case. In soccer, it’s not the case, strange things happen every game and that’s not because football players are bigger cheats than other players but because there’s something about the relationship between law and the bending of law that is essential to the game. The objective of the game is to win. And if winning means bending the law, then you bend the law. And the art of a great player—a great defensive player—is knowing how far they can bend that law. That’s a subtle and often invisible art to the amateur, or to the person who just wants to see goals, because they’re not watching how the game is actually played.

Mascherano is a good example of a player who can, in a sense, not necessarily do much in a game. He’s a brilliantly gifted player, but he doesn’t have to do much given that his mastery of space and time organizes—makes the whole thing cohere. You need a player like Mascherano, as [Diego] Maradona said a couple of years ago. The Argentinian team is Mascherano and you find 10 others. His is the first name on the sheet. And these players are not really understood.

“Argentina did not play well today, but it also didn’t allow the opponent to play well, and that’s important.” – Maradona, 2014.

Another great one—there’s a photograph of him in the book—Claude Makélélé. Same thing. He used to be called the water carrier, cause he just carried the water. He just carried the team. There’s a great player called [Nemanja] Matić, played for Chelsea last year, same thing. So what interests me in football is that stuff. It’s not obvious. Football is a subtle art.

From Fascism to Populism in History: Federico Finchelstein’s New Book

For New School for Social Research Professor of History Federico Finchelstein, the present-day stakes of engaging with the history of populism could not be more critical.

As Finchelstein puts it in his new book, From Fascism to Populism in History (University of California Press), “Populism’s past challenges to egalitarian forms of democracy continue in the present and are now threatening the future of our own democratic times.” He contends that a historical understanding of modern populism—whose roots he also traces back to the earliest days of twentieth century fascism—has become critical in any analysis of contemporary politics.

Differently put, our capacity to respond to the challenges presented by populism depends crucially upon our willingness and ability to acknowledge and process the lessons of history.

Having grown up under military dictatorship in Argentina, and having studied various forms of authoritarianism throughout his career as an academic, Finchelstein finds it surprising that his work has gained such sudden and urgent relevance in the United States and around the world. With the election of Donald J. Trump to the Presidency, Finchelstein suggests that the United States has become the global leader of populism. But it is hardly alone in grappling with populist movements, marking only the most recent in a long string of developments around the world. From Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey, to Brexit, Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland and France’s National Front—among many others—populism is on the march around the world.

At the same time, it is the 2016 presidential election and the success of populism in the United States that most intrigued Finchelstein, at the very least because President Trump represents the first modern populist to hold the office here. “I never thought these issues would hit so close to my home in New York,” he said in a recent conversation with Research Matters. Reflecting on his longtime commitment to researching the history of fascism and populism, Finchelstein recalled his feelings about the intellectual legacy of The New School upon his arrival in 2006. “The New School for Social Research was founded not only on the idea that there was an academic need to resist fascism,” he said, “but also a need to understand it.”

To this tradition of scholarship, Finchelstein brings a distinctive approach to an examination of populism “from the margins,” integrating perspectives from the Global South that commonly remain outside Eurocentric historical narratives about populism’s emergence as a political force. For example, he reminds readers that Argentina’s Juan Perón became the first populist leader to reach power in the postwar era, becoming an example of how to do things for subsequent generations of populists in Latin America and elsewhere. In the subtext of his genealogy of populism, Finchelstein points to an unmistakable through line back to fascism—a line that similarly goes unaddressed in extant scholarship on populism. “Many interpreters of populism have a limited understanding of the historical and genealogical connections between populism and fascism,” Finchelstein explained. “They collapse important historical distinctions and different historical contexts, as well as continuities.”

From Fascism to Populism in History addresses precisely these contextual differences and continuities, providing a nuanced vocabulary for describing the particular ambitions of present-day populists and carefully articulating what it inherits from fascism. “In history,” Finchelstein writes, “fascism was a political ideology that encompassed totalitarianism, state terrorism, imperialism, racism, and, in Germany’s case, the most radical genocide of the last century: the Holocaust.” He adds that its central aim was “to destroy democracy from within to create a modern dictatorship from above.” Although populists often attract what Finchelstein calls “neofascist fellow travelers”—particularly when it comes to the definition of “the people” in ethnic, national, and racial terms—he emphasizes that they typically aim to, “reshape democracy in [an] authoritarian fashion without fully destroying it.” The result might not look like the dissolution of democratic rule, but nevertheless often represents a significant erosion of democratic institutions.