I use insights from behavioral science, specifically drawing from concepts and methods in social psychology, social cognition, and neurobiology, to design or improve programs working with refugees and migrants, issues of mental health, conflict prevention, or counter-extremism. Essentially, I work on issues that have to do with the human and psychological aspects of cycles of violence.
Why Brain Science and Social Development?
Behavioral science offers is an unique lens through which we can view social conflict. Brain and behavioral sciences are teaching us more every day about how we as humans behave, why we behave the way we do, and what real or perceived circumstances push us towards violence. However, policy and programming in the humanitarian and social development space have yet to meaningfully integrate research from the behavioral sciences. I, and others in this field, work to change that, because he careful integration of brain science research into conflict-related programming could lead to better spending and better service to populations affected by disaster, war, injustice, and inequality.
Don’t believe me? Take for example the simple notion of advertising. Most of us consider ourselves impenetrable to ads’ attempts to woo us to buy a certain project or dish out money to a specific charity. Well, simply administering the hormone oxytocin (a social bonding hormone) increases humans’ positive responses to advertisements. No, we can’t ask viewers to self-administer oxytocin before viewing our charity ads, but we can explore how social bonding and group trust dynamics (natural factories of oxytocin) can affect how we engage with charity messaging or how we design cause campaigns.
Still not sure? Okay. Ever catch yourself stiffening up a bit when you walk by a homeless person asking for spare change? Well, current research suggests that brain regions responsible for recognition of other humans’ emotions do not activate when we confront homeless individuals, or others who may elicit “disgust” responses. Disgust centers in the brain are designed to help us avoid pathogens, yet can also lead us away from empathetic or charitable behavior. How might there neural networks affect how we engage with populations we are “afraid” of, or despise? How can me measure that?
Let’s take one last example. Stress matters, and stress can come in many forms. Emerging research indicates that conditions associated with poverty, which create a constant and often unconsciously felt tension between goals and means, is a form of stress that can be considered a “cognitive tax” and can raise stress hormone levels. Chronic, elevated stress has been linked with a wide array of negative health outcomes. The effects of poverty-induced stress can specifically and more dramatically affect children, all the way to the level of brain architecture and cognitive function and learning. So, we must ask, what types of programs have are most effective in reducing stress, and how can we measure these reductions? Innovative new methods allow us to test stress indicators via FitBits, ear clips, hair, and even fingernail clippings.
The richness of evidence from the brain and behavioral sciences could revolutionize how international and local actors approach issues of stress, trauma, conflict management, peacebuilding, humanitarian aid, and social development, but organizations continue to rely on tired policies and methods that largely neglect the details of how humans experience and feel conflict and injustice, and how subjective experiences have serious impacts on our brains and our social behavior.
What I try to do:
Harnessing and leveraging insights from brain and behavioral sciences, as well as continued field experience in post-conflict communities, I offer technical consulting and research services on a variety of issues, specifically drawing from historical and current research in the fields of social cognition, social psychology, social neuroscience, and social neurobiology. I leverage research from these fields to help institutions design better programming and interventions, or improve existing projects, in the areas of refugee aid and integration, negotiations and peacebuilding, psychosocial support and trauma-informed responses, countering violent extremism, and intergroup conflict more broadly.
As with most consultants, I use my own diagnostic process that helps me dissect the clients’ problems, needs, and goals, and I work closely with them to provide technical assistance as well as concrete learning opportunities for staff in the areas of brain and behavioral science.
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