Enhancing Community Cohesion through a Neuroscience Approach

By Rene H Levy, PhD

When I was Department chair, I met with each PhD graduate for an exit interview including some career advice. One of those pertained to the nature of progress in science including the observation that scientists working in a given field tended to think of the same things at approximately the same time. Well the same seems to be happening with advances in the field of Community Leadership training.

In the April 5, 2017 eJP article by Abby Saloma, I happily learned that the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation had graduated two cohorts of Fellows trained “from the inside out” with emotional intelligence skills. In 2015, the Project for Applied Peoplehood and Jewish Unity was initiated in Seattle by a few visionaries to address findings of the 2014 Puget Sound Jewish Community Profile. The Project’s goal was to tackle community divisiveness head-on, including the “dysfunctional discourse and internecine invective” that has been skillfully described in a series of eJP articles by Hal M. Lewis, Eric D. Fingerhut, and Steven Windmueller. The Peoplehood Ambassador training program began one year ago and graduated its first cohort of Ambassadors. The second cohort will graduate in May 2017. In addition, private training is offered to Boards of Seattle community organizations.

Like the Schusterman Fellows program, the Peoplehood Ambassador training program also aims to develop “Leaders from the Inside Out” but our goal is specific to enhancing community cohesion. To address that goal, the training had to be “transformative.” Therefore, curriculum design began by asking key questions:

  • What made American Jews become uncivil or fear dialogue?
  • Why did our culture of differences disappear?
  • Why did we shift from persuasion to coercion?

As a neuroscientist, I focused on a scientific understanding of the causes of divisiveness and developed a 4 Unit curriculum (called Levy-4-Step Peoplehood Ambassador Training) to build the emotional framework necessary to overcome divisive emotions such as stereotypes, prejudices, and estrangement at their point of emergence.

Unit 1 covers the social science concept of “Group Belonging.” It teaches that (i) we have a fundamental need to belong to groups because we are social beings and seek social acceptance; (ii) belonging to groups confers benefits such as sense of worth, self-esteem, and self-knowledge; (iii) group belonging automatically involves group emotions, group comparisons, and group competition; (iv) group members develop stereotypes and prejudices toward members of competing groups. But when group competition includes a perception of threat, group relationships become tense and may lead to indifference, demonization and even dehumanization.

Unit 2 is called “Quantitative Empathy.” It describes how empathy is measured (Empathy Quotient, EQ) and how it is distributed in the population according to a bell-shaped curve. Trainees learn about the brain “empathy circuit.” They also learn how to measure their own EQ and what those results entail in terms of social interactions and judging others’ beliefs.

Unit 3 introduces two sources of divisiveness, the “Zero-Empathy” trap and the role of the Primitive Neural System (PNS). The PNS is a high-alert system that is triggered by any perception of threat, whether or not it is real. To protect us, the PNS switches off our capacity for empathy and produces emotions such as distancing, dislike, resentment, or aversion. But two major pitfalls arise: empathy loss lasts, and we lose awareness that we have no empathy. Because empathy loss by Jewish leaders is highly consequential for our communities, trainees learn how to prevent it by outsmarting the PNS through impulse control. They also learn how to re-build empathy skills using Radical Listening and Dialectics. Radical listening transforms the way we listen (interruptions, body language, eye contact). Dialectics teaches that many life situations involve contradictions and that truth is often distributed and not concentrated in one point of view.

Unit 4 presents Mutual Responsibility as a social contract among citizens aware of their interdependence. Its biblical origins are reviewed to learn how that idea became operational within the Jewish people. Beyond the slogan “all Jews are responsible for one another,” trainees learn how mutual responsibility builds a “social connective tissue” not found in societies that promote excessive or irresponsible individualism. To conclude, trainees learn that mutual responsibility implies certain attitudes/behaviors on the part of Jewish community leaders:

a) Concern about the welfare of the collective and its shared goals;
b) Community life requires that we learn to live with disagreements;
c) Knowledge that well informed people can reach different conclusions from the same set of facts;
d) Acknowledgment of a conflicting viewpoint is not synonymous with agreeing with it or betraying oneself.

Since we utilize a workshop format, the last session also includes a capstone group discussion of our program’s key aphorism: “we choose the significance we attribute to our differences!”

Rene H Levy is Professor Emeritus, University of Washington and Founder of the Project for Applied Peoplehood and Jewish Unity. He authored “Baseless Hatred: What It Is and What You Can Do About It.”