Brain Scans Reveal Why Your Family's Political Debates This Holiday Were Futile
Going home for the holidays to a family that likes to debate politics can be stressful. Going home for the holidays post-election, when they’re convinced fake news is real news and real news is fake news, is enough for you to beg your boss for another week off work. If you found yourself walking away from the dinner table this year with your cousin still convinced Hillary Clinton is in the Illuminati, don’t be too hard on yourself — new research shows there’s not much you could have done to change their mind in the first place.
In a paper recently published in Scientific Reports, a team of researchers explain that people become more stubborn in their political beliefs when they’re provided with evidence contradicting those beliefs. In the study, the more emotionally tied people were to what they believed in, the more difficult it was to convince them to change their mind — regardless of how compelling the counterargument was. Because their beliefs were so tied to their self-identity, it was difficult for them to consider an alternate version of themselves.
The researchers came to this conclusion by using an fMRI scanner to measure the brain activity of 40 self-identified liberal participants with strong political views. While in the scanner, the study subjects read a series of statements that they previously said they agreed with, followed by a series of counterarguments challenging those statements. They then were asked to report how strongly they believed in the original statements, which involved assertions like “abortion should be legal” and “taxes on the wealthy should generally be increased.” Participants were also asked to reconsider facts they didn’t feel a strong emotional reaction to, such as “Thomas Edison had invented the light bulb.” They were provided with counterarguments that would prompt feelings of doubt to those statements.
The researchers found that the participants predominantly did not change the beliefs they were emotionally tied to, but they did express more doubt about their beliefs in facts they were not emotionally invested in.
When the researchers studied the brain scans of the participants to see what parts of the brains were most engaged while they being challenged, they saw that people who were more resistant had more activity in their amygdala and in the insular cortex — areas that are tied to emotion and decision-making. The amygdala is involved in perceiving threat, and the insular cortex detects the emotional salience of stimuli.
“These areas of the brain have been linked to thinking about who we are, and with the kind of rumination or deep thinking that takes us away from here and now,” said lead author Jonas Kaplan, Ph.D., in a statement.
In other words, challenges to political beliefs causes increased activity in the part of the brain that is, as the researchers write, “associated with self-representation and disengagement from the external world.” That is why people are so resistant to changing — their opinions are controlled by the neural systems that manage emotion. Anything that challenges those beliefs is an attack on the brain.
The researchers say that now it is more important than ever to study why people are resistant to change.
“Few things are as fundamental to human progress as our ability to arrive at a shared understanding of the world,” they write. “Viewed in this light, the inability to change another person’s mind through evidence and argument, or to have one’s own mind changed in turn, stands out as a problem of great societal importance.”