Moments That Matter — Childish Gambino's This Is America

With his music video for This is America, Childish Gambino has delivered one of the most thought-provoking pieces of 2018. This video stems into a larger conversation about the social injustices that plague American society today - systemic racism, police brutality, and gun violence. Many prominent commentators have weighed in on the piece (Blue TelusmaDr. Guthrie P. Ramsey and K. Austin Collins), and we wondered: what could neuroscience add?

Why neuroscience?

Given the subject matter of This is America, it’s not unreasonable to think that many people would be wary of sharing their true feelings – especially if this sharing happened in a public setting. Indeed, a study conducted by Simmons and Green in 2016 found that divisive discussion topics led to a higher perception of threat by those who participated in the discussions of these topics; non-participation seems quite sensible. A neuroscience-based approach would bypass the need to explicitly discuss one’s feelings to, say, racially-fuelled violence, thus protecting them against this threat.

Furthermore, when people discuss such controversial topics, they can fall victim to the ‘illusion of objectivity’. This happens when one holds the conviction that one’s own perceptions are realistic and objective, and therefore reasonable that others will and should share them . Those who disagree are in turn assigned negative attributes, and are perceived as unreasonable. Once this occurs, a constructive dialogue is extremely difficult to cultivate.

Brainsights hopes that by surfacing our unconscious responses to these difficult topics through neuroscience, we can empower a greater understanding of human behaviour and identify some meaningful ways forward.

How are people responding and what does it mean?

The overall scores for the music video and second-by-second break down are down below. A breakdown of various scenes is provided.

Throughout our neuroanalysis two prominent themes emerge from the brainwave data.

1) Many moments of Introspection

Introspection is defined as “examination of and attention to your own, ideas, thoughts and feelings”. At Brainsights, moments of introspection are identified when Connection scores are substantially greater than Attention scores. This signals that participants are still feeling a strong connection on what was observed, but they are no longer paying as much attention to what is in front of them (even if the content continues to play).

The strongest moment of introspection occurs just after the guitar player – head and face covered with a bag – is shot at point-blank range by Childish Gambino. This pivotal scene changed the entire tone of the video and from there on a strong bass replaces the light-hearted melody and vivid imagery takes hold. The audience is forced to confront something unexpected and disturbing. This powerful moment has individuals withdrawing from the content on screen (lower Attention) and deeply considering what they’ve just witnessed (higher Connection).

Another strong moment of introspection comes towards the end of the video, when Childish Gambino is running away from a group of people appearing extremely distressed. Audience members felt a strong connection to this scene and may be trying to piece together what is going on instead of paying attention to the content on screen.

These moments of introspection show that although people may not be vocal with their views on topics, there is something about these moments of imagery that encourage the audience to reflect on their feelings whether they consciously and explicitly choose to or not. (See more examples on Slides 5, 9, 11 and 12)

2) Search for the positive and withdraw from the negative

Subconsciously, people continuously search for positive moments (when engagement scores increase) during the music video and they withdraw (engagement scores decrease) during moments that bring uncomfortable images to the forefront.

The choir scene is one instance. When the choir is first introduced there is increased engagement from the audience as the melody has changed back to a positive tone. But then Childish Gambino guns down the choir - a bone-chilling reminder of the Charleston church shooting – upon which a brief moment of introspection occurs before the audience withdraws from the negativity, seemingly not wishing to confront the harsh reality.

This could be a collective avoidance coping strategy by the audience. According to Holahan et al (2005), avoidance coping involves both cognitive and behavioral efforts directed toward denying, minimizing, or avoiding dealing directly with stressful situations.

Many are inclined to avoid things that make them uncomfortable and would rather escape from the harsh truths. However, another phenomenon known as ‘Optimism Bias’ could provide a better explanation. Optimism Bias occurs when individuals overestimate the good events that will occur in their lives and underestimate the negative events that will occur. This cognitive bias leads to people to be more optimistic than realistic (about 80% of the population expresses this propensity for optimism regardless of age and culture).

study conducted by Sharot, Korn & Dolan (2011) examined how individuals maintained unrealistic optimism (optimism bias) even when they are presented with information that challenged their beliefs. The findings indicated that activity in the prefrontal cortex allowed information to be processed when it was better than expected and supported current beliefs. However, when information that challenges/contradicts current beliefs is presented there was a reduced amount of activity in the right inferior prefrontal gyrus – this leads to diminished neural coding needed to update beliefs for the future (Sharot, Korn & Dolan, 2011). So instead of updating your belief with new information individuals can continue to walk around with their optimistic beliefs.

This phenomenon is evident in the brain data too! People are subconsciously less engaged with the parts of the video geared towards the dark reality people of colour are facing. People want to engage with the aspects of the video that make them feel better, whether it is rooted in reality or not. (For more examples look to Slides 6 to 8 from the second by second analysis).

Beyond Neuroscience - What do we do now?

Given that 1) people feel increased threat when discussing divisive topics, and 2) through the brain’s optimism bias, there’s a tendency for us to filter out negativity, how can we ensure that society ‘wakes up’ and engages in meaningful action to address racial inequality?

The issue does not appear to be a lack of caring from the general public. We know through our neuroanalysis that moments of violence on people of colour spark moments of introspection – there’s emotional resonance in these moments.

But there’s a clue in our other insight – that people continuously search for positivity with the brain’s ‘optimism bias’. Amidst the chaos of This is America, people are looking for glimmers of positivity. There’s hope in our brains.

What if instead of divisiveness, we re-framed the conversation of racial inequality and violence to one based on fairness – of opportunity and treatment? We could galvanize popular support for real reform by playing to the way our brains are wired. Indeed, it’s happened before, and recently enough in America. On the legalization of gay marriage, shifting the narrative from gay rights – based on policies and facts – to one of empathy and fairness (“You get to marry who you love. Why can’t we?”), accelerated the growth in public support for gay marriage required for lawmakers to take action.

The issues addressed in This is America are different and, many would argue, more entrenched and systemic. But we’ve learned that content like this can spark conversation, and analyzing the unconscious response to this content can illuminate important biases and point to a way forward. These are important steps themselves in encouraging the mindset shift required to precede true reform to improve the quality – and equality - of life for all.