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How the brain responds when our beliefs are challenged

By on June 7, 2017 in Psychology Research with 0 Comments

Likelihood of changing personal beliefs graph
This chart shows how likely people are to change their beliefs, with 0 being the least. Source: ‘Neural correlates of maintaining one’s political beliefs in the face of counterevidence’ (USC/Nature)

A recent study suggests that people do indeed hold onto political views more stubbornly than other beliefs, even when presented with information to the contrary.

The research team from the University of Southern California (USC) found that regions of the brain regulating our emotional response to perceived threats are activated most strongly when political beliefs are challenged.

The Rigidity of Belief Systems

The study, published in Nature, used functional MRI scans on 40 self-described liberals to understand how people’s willingness to change their mind differs between non-political and political views as well as the parts of the brain involved.

Perhaps unsurprisingly scientists found that firmly held beliefs that are political in nature were less flexible than those that are not as politically charged.

The study included questions on polarizing topics such as attitudes toward gun control. After being asked whether they support tighter restrictions on guns, the participants were then ‘challenged’ by a series of common counter-arguments. For example, statements drawing attention to the number of legal gun owners who can protect themselves against violent crime with or without firing a shot.

Researchers asked the same participants for their views on topics such as Thomas Edison’s role in inventing the light bulb. Evidence to the contrary here included statements about the important contributions of other scientists in the breakthrough.

The participants were asked to reevaluate their opinions after having already rated the strength in their initial belief on a scale of 1-7.

Beliefs concerning abortion were the least flexible of all, with the majority of people unwilling to shift their position by even the slightest amount. Meanwhile, most people did change their mind at least somewhat on subjects such as the role of cholesterol in heart disease.

Analysis

Graphic showing the location of the amygdala

The Amygdala

The fMRI scan found several important differences in the brain activity of those most stubborn about their views when compared to those with greater flexibility on the issues. Those most resistant to change had relatively higher levels of activity in the amygdala and the insular cortex.

This finding is of interest because the amygdala is known to play a role in emotion and our perception of threats. Another system in the brain referred to as the default mode network also became highly active when the individual’s political ideas were contradicted.

These areas are thought to be important in defining our sense of personal identity and in patterns of deeper abstract thought.

The link between political views and our sense of personal identity is perhaps nothing new to many. Previous research suggests that many of us live in a type of bubble in which our political views are likely shared and reinforced by our social circles and acquaintances. The unwillingness to confront the different political opinions of others appears to occur in both liberal and conservative populations. Researchers have speculated this may be due to an avoidance of anxiety-provoking stimuli.

This study may also have important implications for our current political and media climate, in which various publications have been accused of pedaling fake news.

Political views appear to form a type of ‘blind spot’ for many in which our psychological biases favor information that reinforces our pre-existing opinions. The high levels of activity in the amygdala of participants, when challenged on political views, support the hypothesis that engaging with those who disagree with us can be anxiety-provoking in itself. Interestingly, those who clung most stubbornly to their views had stronger activity in this brain region related to threat perception when presented with evidence contradicting their views.

In a polarized age where for many political views and personal identity are heavily entwined, this study highlights again the connection between our politics and sense of belonging, as well as our general stubbornness to be won over by those opposing our ideals.

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About the Author

About the Author:

Tom Andrews BSc is the founder of MentalWellnessToday.com and serves as its editor-in-chief. He devotes his time to psychology and mental health research and also enjoys climbing, hiking, and team sports. Tom is a contributor to several other highly regarded health magazines and blogs.

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