The Neuroscience Behind our Last Election 

by Jordan Myers

We have all had the experience of being told we were wrong. Depending on one’s predisposition, such an accusation may have been met with anything from indignation to an amiable request for a cordial explanation. While some of us think we are more receptive to criticism than others, most of us fail to actually change our minds when confronted with counterevidence. For a real-world example, we need look no further than the volatile conversations broadcast on Fox News, CNN, MSNBC, and the like. When was the last time your socially conservative uncle or radically Marxist nephew sat back and genuinely considered your counterpoint over Thanksgiving Dinner? Probably never.

In a neuroscience study performed at UCLA, scientists Jonas Kaplan, Sarah Gimbel and Sam Harris studied how individuals maintain strongly held political beliefs in the face of counterevidence. The researchers presented 40 self-identified political liberals with both political questions on topics such as economics and social issues and non-political questions touching categories such as nutrition, education and history.  Subjects were asked to answer the questions using a scale from 1 to 7 (1 being strongly disagree, 4 being neutral, and 7 being strongly agree). For questions that were strongly responded to (either 1 or 2, 6 or 7), subjects were then shown evidence or logic that contradicted their stated opinions. They were then asked to answer the original question using the same scale of 1 to 7. All this was done while the participants’ brains were being scanned in an fMRI machine, a device that measures brain activity in real time. Using the fMRI data, the researchers were able to measure both the brain activity during political and non-political questions, and analyze how individuals’ answers differed before and after logical challenges. The results reveal how the brain operates when presented with counterevidence, and how political beliefs are less amenable to revision than non-political ones.

Participants decreased their certainty on non-political beliefs far more than they did on political ones. On the scale from 1 to 7 (strongly disagree to strongly agree), answers decreased in certainty by an average of 1.28 points for non-political answers, but only 0.31 points for political ones. In a follow-up questionnaire distributed several weeks after the study, non-political beliefs remained at a lower degree of confidence than the political ones by 0.55 points. That means subjects had more of an immediate and lasting change when confronted with counterevidence on non-political beliefs.

While this information about belief change is revealing, the researchers also directly linked individuals’ inability to change their minds to neurological patterns. When the researchers monitored participants’ brains during confrontation with counterevidence, there was a vast difference in how they processed challenges to political beliefs versus non-political ones. Two particular regions of the brain showed tightly correlated activity with resisting political belief change: the amygdala and the left dorsomedial prefrontal cortex (DMPFC).

The amygdala is a region of the brain responsible for emotional regulation and motivation, while the DMPFC is activated during cognitive reappraisal, or the reinterpretation of information. It seems the DMPFC’s role in this process is to control the emotional significance of stimuli in order to reduce their effect on belief change. This is commonly known as confirmation bias: the brain ignores or reevaluates contradictory evidence to maintain one’s current beliefs and readily accepts information that already aligns with one’s beliefs. This pattern was more prevalent during the political challenges than the non-political, which means that the brain routinely doubted contradictory evidence for political beliefs while honestly evaluating challenges to non-political ones.

With political challenges, there was also decreased activity in the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC), which is responsible for decision-making. The OFC is associated with cognitive flexibility and the ability to change one’s mind, so to speak. Decreased activity in the OFC is associated with cognitive inflexibility. The researchers “suggest that the function of these brain regions in adjusting learned associations may be important for the process of changing one’s beliefs in response to counterevidence.”

To summarize, challenges to political beliefs triggered brain activity suggesting that participants experienced emotional distress and the strong desire to retain their political leanings at all costs, while exposing an inability to honestly evaluate new information and change one’s mind. These effects were drastically reduced during challenges to non-political beliefs.

While this information may leave us pessimistic about the possibility of political collaboration, we should look at the results as a guide to altering the way we tend to speak to our political opposites. Instead of ridicule or moral condemnation, which would likely increase neurological resistance to belief change, we should speak with calmness and clarity. Civil discussions, as opposed to shouting matches, are more likely to persuade others. And we should be careful not to ignore the self-implications of this study. Perhaps it is we that have been emotionally highjacked, not our political rivals. This study suggests that, whatever our political leanings may be, we should make and evaluate political arguments with our neurological tendencies in mind. Perhaps shouting angrily and pointing your fork at Grandma over Thanksgiving dinner is not the best way to have a reasonable conversation – to circumnavigate the brain’s political ‘anti-virus software’ almost certainly requires patience, clarity of expression and a calm demeanor.