When people are presented with evidence that counter their firmly held beliefs, they generally tend to discount it. During a time of polarizing and turbulent American politics, this tendency to disagree undermines social progress by hindering political compromise and rational decision-making. If scientists gain a better understanding of how political beliefs relate to human behavior, there is a greater prospect of one day achieving a better reception to opposing viewpoints. Through neuroimaging techniques, scientists have identified certain brain patterns that provide insight into the characteristic of belief maintenance, which is crucial for achieving this goal.
In a study performed by Kaplan et al., functional MRI was done on 40 individuals to measure brain activity in response to political counterarguments. They measured belief change by assessing the differences in fMRI ratings before and after exposure to counterarguments, after predicting that these changes would be found in emotion-related brain structures. Their findings demonstrated that this in fact, was the case; resisting changing one’s beliefs was positively correlated with activity in the insular cortex and amygdala, which are largely associated with emotion, fear, and anxiety. Thus, when people feel anxious or get emotional when presented with opposing ideas, they tend to defend their beliefs and are less likely to change their minds.
Kaplan et al. also identified a general trend associated with the type of stimuli and the level of belief change observed. As predicted, when subjects were asked about public policy issues such as abortion, immigration, and taxes, there was generally a low level of belief change. On the contrary, when the subjects were asked non-political questions such as whether “taking a daily vitamin improves one’s health” or “a college education improves one’s economic prospects” there was generally a high level of belief change. These trends seem to represent the strong role that emotion plays in cognitive processing during political discourse.
Furthermore, Kaplan also identified levels of activity in other parts of the brain in order to determine how their functions affect the amount of belief resistance. They observed that signal levels in the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) decreased with greater belief resistance, whereas signal levels in the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex (DMPFC) increased with greater belief resistance. The former is associated with the cognitive processing of decision-making and cognitive flexibility. The latter is a region activated during cognitive reappraisal, which is an emotional regulation strategy in which an individual reinterprets how to emotionally respond to a stimulus. When the 40 liberal subjects were presented with political questions, OFC activity tended to decrease, while it tended to increase for non-political questions. The OFC, which helps the brain transition from one concept to another and adapt to new ideas, is rendered less active in the face of political counterarguments. As a result, one’s ability to rationally consider facts is limited. Furthermore, Kaplan et al. identified an upregulation of DMPFC activity in subjects that had a high level of belief resistance, suggesting that the DMPFC plays a possible role in resistance to changes in attitude, especially in the face of threat stimuli. Both of these regions in the brain seem to hinder objectivity when presented with political counterarguments, thus contributing to greater belief resistance.
Understanding the reasons why people change or do not change their minds in response to counterarguments is crucial for understanding society’s progress from a communicative standpoint. By understanding the role of emotion and the different brain structures that govern cognition, researchers are better positioned to determine what types of political statements tend to persuade people to change their minds. Overall, the current scientific progress on neural mechanisms provides insight into examples of current political polarization today, such as the struggle that has existed to pass legislation in Congress. One example is the Affordable Care Act of 2010, which was not signed into law until 6 months after it was introduced by lawmakers! This characteristic of belief change resistance is thus unfavorable to legislative progress, contributing to the excess time required to pass important bills. However, similar research involving brain patterns provides hope for human progress, especially in terms of improving aspects of communication in the sphere of politics and boosting government efficiency.
- Barnes, A., & Thagard, P. (1996). Emotional Decisions [Abstract]. University of Waterloo.
- Kanai, R., Feilden, T., Firth, C., & Rees, G. (2011). Political Orientations Are Correlated with Brain Structure in Young Adults. Current Biology, 21(8), 677-680. doi:10.1016/j.cub.2011.03.017
- Kaplan, J. T., Gimbel, S. I., & Harris, S. (2016). Neural correlates of maintaining one’s political beliefs in the face of counterevidence. Scientific Reports, 6(1). doi:10.1038/srep39589