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Moral Grandstanding, Empathic Polarization, And Mood Disorders Neurobiology

twin sisters

Moral grandstanding is the use of public moral discourse for self-promotion and status attainment. If you find yourself in an open discussion of morality or politics to impress others with your superior moral qualities, you may be a card-carrying moral grandstander.

A new study in PLOS found that grandstanders were more likely to report antagonistic behavior over time, such as attacking others online or trying to publicly shame someone online because they held a different political belief. The authors suggest that moral grandstanding could be a significant source of conflict in the world today.

Grubbs JB, Warmke B, Tosi J, James AS, Campbell WK (2019) Moral grandstanding in public discourse: Status-seeking motives as a potential explanatory mechanism in predicting conflict. PLoS ONE 14(10): e0223749. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0223749

Dispositional Empathy Polarizes

Here is a follow up to last week’s post about empathic dissonance in life and death decisions. A study in the American Political Science Review posits that people with higher levels of dispositional empathy (the reactions of one individual to the observed experiences of another) are, contrary to popular views, prone to even greater political polarization.

They also show higher levels of partisan bias in the censorship of ideas and feelings of schadenfreude over others’ misfortune.

In a Vox interview with Yale psychologist Paul Bloom, author of the book Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion, Bloom said:

“My beef [with] empathy in particular, [is] with its role in decision making.”

It allegedly introduces a bias. His reasoning appears to be that empathy is desirable in one-to-one relationships, where the sense of connection it engenders pushes us to treat one another better.

But “the real world is nowhere near as simple.” Empathy “zooms you in” to the suffering of the few persons you can most easily relate to, Bloom argues,

“and for that reason, empathy is biased.”

Neurobiology Of Mood Disorders

Is the clinical overlap seen in major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder, anxiety disorders, and post-traumatic stress disorder reflected at the neurobiological level?

A new meta-analysis of functional imaging studies in JAMA Psychiatry found overlapping clusters of hypoactivation were in the inferior prefrontal cortex/insula, inferior parietal lobule, and putamen.

The researchers conclude that across mood and anxiety disorders, the most consistent abnormalities in task-related brain activity overlap in regions primarily associated with emotional and cognitive control.

Research a decade ago identified this overlap, along with PTSD and a few other of the mood disorders. It’s good to see this is now being investigated more definitively.

The findings hold promise for the development of new treatments targeting these regions of the brain in patients with major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and anxiety disorders.