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Professor Interviews — Darren Schreiber

By Taylor Marvin

UCSD is home to world-class faculty doing groundbreaking research in a dizzying variety of fields. However, many UCSD students are unaware of the work their professors do outside the classroom, and are often completely ignorant of research going on in departments outside their own. This post is the start of a series where Prospect Blog will interview UCSD professors, discussing their work, intellectual interests, and advice for students. While Prospect is a journal of international affairs, I intend to host professor from a variety of academic fields with research relevant to the international community. For this first installment, Prospect sat down with political science professor Dr. Darren Schreiber .

Dr. Schreiber

Dr. Schreiber

Prospect: You once worked as a practicing lawyer. What motivated you to make the shift into academia?

Dr. Schreiber: Being a lawyer wasn’t that interesting.When I was 23 and was still in law school I had a three day jury trial on a constitutional law issue in a federal court, and it was really cool. What I realized as soon as I graduated law school and actually started working as a lawyer was that that experience when I was 23 would probably never happen again, and I’d already done the most exciting thing I would ever do in a legal career. After practicing for a year and having tried a bunch of different aspects of law — the firm that I was in was a general practice law firm, so I got to do everything from worker’s comp cases all the way up to multi-million dollar corporate litigation and wrongful death cases and everything else in between — I realized was that every evening when I was coming home from my work I would be essentially doing what I’m doing now. I’d be reading the kind of things that were very interesting to me, things that were a mix of social science and science and a variety of other things. I wasn’t coming home and wanting to read more law. When I started off my PhD program, while introducing everyone to the program my dissertation adviser said that if you don’t go to bed at two in the morning wishing that you could do more political science then a PhD probably isn’t for you, because you’re not going to get paid the amount of money you could make elsewhere, it’s going to be a tremendous amount of work, you’re not going to have any job security, all of these other things that you might get in other careers with that level of effort and everything else. You have to do it because you just love it.

Prospect: Do you find your training as a lawyer helpful in your career now as an academic?

Dr. Schreiber: What I tell to my undergrad classes is that being a lawyer, in your first year in particular, is learning how to think like a lawyer. In particular, lawyers are taught a method called IRAC, which stands for Issue, Rule, Application, Conclusion. The idea is that you learn how to identify what problem you are facing, identify what rules or principles you should use to solve that problem, identify how to apply the rule to the problem, and then finally how to draw conclusions from it. It’s a very structured way of thinking through a problem, and I think it’s very valuable. One of the other positive things that came from being a lawyer is that I was trained to see things with both the law and the facts simultaneously. Most of academia is divided between people who are talking about empirical, positivist sort of research, saying what can we measure and what can we test — the fundamental metrics of what exists in the world — rather than thinking about what ought to be the moral principles and guiding philosophies behind the way things are. Many in academia are very unwilling to cross that line and connect ought to is. But being a lawyer you realize that you just have to do that, because there’s no other option. In law, the way that our legal system is set up, every case has to be decided in relation to a particular legal context, and you can’t have the courts making legal pronouncements unless it’s in the context of a particular case. The facts and the law go hand in hand, and that’s very much influenced the way I think about the problems that I’m facing- not just in the questions of empirical measurement and quantification but really trying to get a sense of what should we do with this. How does this change the world that we’re looking at? I’m fascinated by the core scientific ideas that I get to explore, but I’m also just really interested in how they practically apply, and what to do with them. That goes back to the idea of IRAC. When I’m interacting with students, writing exams, or designing paper topics I’m constantly trying to get my undergrad students to take these theories from a political psychology class and think how you would use them in another context outside of the classroom. I think that this approach comes from my legal training.

Prospect: You specialize in neuropolitics. What can you tell us about this field, and what motivated you to specialize in it?

Dr. Schreiber: When I was a law student I was reading Scientific American because I was very bored with the things that I was reading for law school, and I found myself reading an article about some of the very first uses of brain imaging to study how people think about problems. As researchers were designing these studies, what they would do was have someone in the scanner doing a task they had never done before, and once out of the scanner they would have the subject practice the task a bunch of times until they became very good at it. After, they would brain image them again to see what had changed in their brain after they had practiced this task. When I first started in the PhD program at UCLA, we were talking about all this research showing that people who know and people who don’t know about politics fundamentally think differently about politics. I just asked what’s differently? If there’s all this evidence to suggest that people who really know a lot about politics and are engaged in thinking about politics in a different way, shouldn’t we be able to brain image them and see if there really is a difference between political sophisticates and novices? And so that led me into doing this work, and I got some initially interesting results. My dissertation adviser had had the idea to use response times — how long people take to answer political questions — and we found people to be answering the questions much more quickly than the traditional interpretation would suggest. Political sophisticates would answer questions very quickly because they’d practiced them, and that political novices would take longer because they had to think about the questions, and that they were effortfully trying to do so. The traditional literature suggested that people that knew a lot about politics were engaging in this very deep pontification about these issues, and that people who didn’t know much about politics were just guessing. But they weren’t. People that didn’t know much about politics were trying to answer these questions, and were spending a lot of time trying to do so.

Prospect: What can you tell me about your current research efforts?

Dr. Schreiber: What I’m working on right now is basically a summary of the last ten years of my career, trying to put all of this together in a more coherent story.The story is that we have a brain built for politics, and that the human brain evolved for politics and not to make tools. That theory — man the toolmaker — is one of anthropologists’ earliest theories to explain the huge size of the human brain, which far bigger as a percentage of body mass than any other animal. Our brain consumes a huge amount of our calories; of the smoothie that I ate this morning about a third of the calories are going to go to feed my brain, which is really expensive evolutionarily. So why spend that much on the brain? What does it get us evolutionarily? Well, the toolmaker theory doesn’t work because tools don’t show up at the correct moments in the archaeological record. We’re using tools at some points and then we’re not using them quite as much, and the during the same period the brain expanded in a dramatic fashion. The evidence seems to suggest that the reason that we have the brains we have is to solve the problem of being social animals, and a particular kind of social animal. Ants are social animals- they have very complex supercolonies, one of which is believed to stretch from Canada all the way to Mexico. So while these are really massive, complex societies, what they don’t do is have shifting coalitions. The way that most researchers talk about the development of the human brain was originally titled the Machiavellian hypothesis, suggesting that we think in these kind of Machiavellian ways to strategize about how to interact with each other. However, people became concerned about this title because it inferred a kind of nefariousness, because we associate Machiavelli with a kind of sneaky, underhanded kind of politics. This doesn’t seem to be what’s underpinning the brain, so recently we’ve been terming this core idea the social brain theory.

But we’re not just social. I think that was really driving the evolution of human beings towards the kind of brain that we have is the problem of coalitions. When an individual tries to decide whether you are an us or are you an them, this is a very complex question for humans because while you can be an ally now you might become and enemy, or you might be an enemy but you might be the enemy of my enemy so now you’re my friend. We’re constantly having to make calculations about whether someone is an enemy or a friend, and how much we should compete or cooperate with them, and for humans these are incredibly complex calculations. What we’ve seen is that as human societies have became more complex is that we’ve had a corresponding increase in complexity of the brain. Essentially I’m arguing that the human brain is built for politics. In contrast to the earlier literature that tried to distinguish between people who knew about politics and people that didn’t and treated the people that didn’t follow politics as if there was something fundamentally wrong with them — there’s a lot of literature in academia that terms these people as being dunces or morons — my research suggests that we are all by nature political sophisticates, and that Aristotle got it right. Man is by nature a political sophisticate, which means that even people who don’t pay attention to national politics or vote are still very sophisticated about their office, family or church politics and that we all live as political animals. My current book project is to try to understand the neural mechanisms that people use to think as political animals, and to understand how this shapes political phenomenon. A big part of my argument is that, rather than the rational choice model that sees people as individualists calculating their own utility functions, we are all fundamentally social creatures, meaning that I also consider your utility as well as my own and I’d like to increase both if I can because I benefit from the well-being of all of us. This brain that thinks in coalitions also allows us to think in terms of what moral sentiments we’d like to have towards whom, so if I’m trying to figure out if you’re an us or a them I use different neural mechanisms to think about moral calculations. Do I use a sort of what’s described as a deontological Kantian framework that implies I should never ever push you off a bridge if you’re a friend of mine, versus a kind of utilitarian calculation that says I’d sacrifice one person to save twenty five? Depending on whether you’re judged as an us or a them we make different calculations, and use different neural mechanisms in each of these instances. Knowing this helps to unwrap some of the puzzles we’ve seen in human behavior, and gets us a more fundamental understanding of human politics.

Prospect: Do you see any fundamental difference between the way that humans consider national politics and how we consider every other social interaction?

Dr. Schreiber: I think that largely what we’re doing when we think about national politics is that we’re taking these tools that we use for everyday politics and we’re using them for a particular context. This is a bit different, because national politics are so much more abstract. I’ve never met these people, and disagreeing with them doesn’t have the same consequences as disagreeing with a friend. But I think the brain mechanisms that we’re using are the same.

Prospect: You’re a member of the political science department at UCSD, but your work incorporates a good deal of evolutionary psychology and neuroscience. Do you ever find that difficult in any way?

Dr. Schreiber: It creates challenges. It’s not obvious where to publish, and when I’m going to give a talk on my research I never can assume that people know what I’m talking about. That’s a challenge, but it’s also provided a lot of opportunities for me. When I’m working on the book it’s important for me to be aware if I’m explaining everything, so that if a political scientist is reading it it’s clear what the neuroscience is all about, and I think that it forces me to explain myself better.  But when I’m interacting with neuroscientists it also forces me to understand the limitations of the brain. I think that — as much as I’m making a pitch to political scientists that they need to understand the brain — for every political philosophy going back thousands of years there’s been an understanding of what human nature is, and neuroscience and genetics is helping us to fundamentally understand that human nature in a different way. Similarly, political scientists have been trying to understand human nature for a very long time, and I think that we have a comparative advantage in that we’re studying human nature in the context that human nature developed. Understand humans as political animals changes the kind of questions that a neuroscientist would ask. One of my favorite analogies is if I take a pigeon and a rat, and I train them to both push levers — which neuroscientists and psychologists have done for a long time — we can learn all sorts of things about stimulus response function. But if we take rat and a pigeon and push them off the edge of a table two very different things happen, because they’re not the same thing. They’re not both merely lever pressers, they’re creatures that developed in two very different evolutionary contexts and have a range of different faculties available to them. Human beings are to politics what pigeons are to flying, because human beings developed in the context of politics, and if we want to understand the human brain more effectively we need to understand how it evolved to solve the problem of politics. The idea that we’re hardwired for something is highly problematic, even though many people assume that neuroscience and genetics claim that humans are hardwired for certain tasks. But my argument is that we’re hardwired to not be hardwired, and that the incredible advantage that we get as being humans is that we’re constantly having to evaluate the question of are you an us or are you a them in these constantly shifting conditions, and that means we have to be constantly flexible. What we see in the human brain is tremendous flexibility. We can do experiments where we blindfold a seeing person and teach them to read braille, and they’ll learn to read braille using their visual cortex. So you’re reading braille using your fingers, but instead of it being read in the motor part of your cortex where you would expect it’s being done in the visual cortex. But if we take the blindfold off the activity shifts back to the motor cortex. That’s fascinating, that the brain can switch that quickly to move a cognitive process from the visual area to a motor area and back, all in the span of a week. That’s absolutely incredible. If I teach you to juggle I can brain image you now and watch as your brain changes over the next six months, and if I tell you to stop juggling the areas that grew while you were practicing everyday will atrophy over the next six months. Similarly, the wiring in the brain will change — we can observe the white matter changing as well — showing that there is a tremendous level of neural plasticity that allows the brain to reconfigure itself constantly. It’s not that you have a brain that you were given at age twenty and it just deteriorates until you die, which the older, pre-neural plasticity of the mind said, but that your brain is constantly adapting. And the reason we have that neural plasticity is that we’re political animals that evolved in these constantly shifting coalitions. I think that the advantage of being a political scientist is to be able to study the brain in that context.

Prospect: Do you think that there’s any useful comparisons between human politics and the political analogs of our closets relatives, namely chimpanzees?

Dr. Schreiber: Yeah. When we look at chimpanzees there’s tremendous parallels to our own politics. What’s interesting is to not just look at chimpanzees, but to look at bonobos, orangutans and gorillas as well. Orangutans will often live as solitary animals, and for a while they seemed as sort of an exception to this kind of social intelligence hypothesis. But it turns out they live as solitary animals in resource-poor environments for survival reasons, and they actually thrive quite well in groups. Bonobos and chimpanzees are differentiated by the ways that they resolve conflicts. Chimpanzees tend to be much more aggressive and violent, and bonobos tends to be much more sexual in terms of their conflict patterns, though both happen to some degree in the two species. Humans tend to be a mix of both. We’re not nearly as promiscuous as bonobos, and we’re not nearly as aggressive as chimpanzees. I think that understanding our role as primates gives us some deep insights. It’s also interesting to observe that while young chimpanzees can solve technical problems with similar ability to young children, when it comes to social problems chimpanzees fail, drastically. The difference between a two year old human and a young chimpanzee is that a human child will be willing to cooperate with you, and social learning seems to be where we differ massively from our other primate relatives. As much as we’re political animals and their political animals, we’re just all that much more so.

But we also do see these coalition shiftings in other primates. There’s a famous story of a rhesus monkey colony that had existed for forty years in a very large research facility, and a group of these monkeys that had dominated the rest in a hierarchical social structure for decades. But one weekend the dominant female from that group had been taken to the veterinarian, and other members of this alpha group happened to escape the enclosure. By the time that they got back the dominant group had been overthrown, and thirty years of political stability in these rhesus monkeys was upset in a coup in the span of a weekend. All of a sudden, this very stable political order had been radically re-shifted by the leader leaving her territory for a couple of days. I see parallels to this in human society, where we see political structures that can last for thousands of years but vanish very quickly. Humans shift in our alliances very quickly, and we can see those patterns mirrored in our primate cousins.

Prospect: What advice do you have for students considering careers in academia?

Dr. Schreiber: Like I said, unless you go to bed at two in the morning wishing you could do more political science or sociology or physics you shouldn’t do it. Fundamentally, this goes to what I like to talk about in my final lecture to undergrad classes, the idea of finding your mission. There’s a tremendous body of research that shows that with 10,000 hours of practice you can become an expert at really anything. 10,000 hours of deliberate practice and you can develop world-class expertise at anything you’d like, because there’s no real evidence for the existence of innate talent. It’s all about practice, and about doing the work to build skills over time. Part of this is an idea termed flow, which is a very positive emotion state that people achieve when they’re really really engrossed in something. People are most likely to be in that state of flow — to be most completely swept up into what they are doing — when they’re doing something very hard that they’re very good at. So what that entails is living life at the edge of your competence. While that’s a hard life, 10,000 hours of that and you’re a world class expert. But 10,000 hours is five years of your life, so you need to find something you enjoy. So essentially the world is your oyster, and I think that for undergraduates to lock themselves into a particular career early is problematic. I think that people should try to first find who they are. The average person will have fourteen jobs by the time they’re forty, and you have to figure that most of those jobs will never make it one to your resume. So that means that two thirds of your jobs in your future won’t necessarily lead to what you will ultimately do, but what they are valuable for is to help you figure out who you are. We now live in a world where people have the luxury to figure out who they are and what their passions are, and what’s worth 10,000 hours of their time. I think that finding your passion and living a life of flow is very much a life worth living

Note: A good introduction to neuropolitics can be found in James Fowler and Darren Schreiber’s “Biology, Politics, and the Emerging Science of Human Nature.”

4 Comments Post a comment
  1. Chris C. #

    Nice interview! Hope to see more in the future with this series.

    April 27, 2011
  2. Rohan #

    Prof Schreiber is a great lecturer and such a brilliant, passionate individual. moar of these please.

    April 30, 2011
  3. noah m.s. #

    Darren is my uncle

    February 21, 2019

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  1. New Paper By Darren Schreiber- “Red Brain, Blue Brain: Evaluative Processes Differ in Democrats and Republicans” » PROSPECT Blog

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