Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Unchangable political beliefs

Neuroscientists at the University of Southern California have published a paper, Neural correlates of maintaining one’s political beliefs in the face of counterevidence (Scientific Reports, 6, No. 39589, December 2016; ), describing brain responses to evidence that contradicts personal political beliefs. Areas of the brain that are activated by contrary evidence include the amygdala and insular cortex. Those areas are associated with emotion, decision-making, threat perception and feelings of anxiety.

When self-described political liberals were presented with evidence that contradicted eight strongly held political beliefs, the amygdala and insular cortex were more activated than when they were presented with evidence that contradicted eight strongly held, but non-political beliefs. When asked to rate their beliefs after seeing the contrary evidence, people’s beliefs about the non-political topics decreased in strength, but they didn’t significantly change the degree of their faith in their political beliefs. The contrary evidence was five statements of fact that contradicted each of the political and non-political beliefs.

According to the paper: “People often discount evidence that contradicts their firmly held beliefs. However, little is known about the neural mechanisms that govern this behavior. We used neuroimaging to investigate the neural systems involved in maintaining belief in the face of counterevidence, presenting 40 liberals with arguments that contradicted their strongly held political and non-political views. Challenges to political beliefs produced increased activity in the default mode network—a set of interconnected structures associated with self-representation and disengagement from the external world. . . . We also found that participants who changed their minds more showed less BOLD* signal [detectable brain activity] in the insula and the amygdala when evaluating counterevidence. These results highlight the role of emotion in belief-change resistance and offer insight into the neural systems involved in belief maintenance, motivated reasoning, and related phenomena.”

* BOLD: blood oxygen level dependent

                                  The amygdala are the green areas in the brain scan

The amygdala and insular cortex are brain areas associated with thinking about personal identity and abstract or deep thinking that disengages from present reality.

The paper puts the research into context: “Few things are as fundamental to human progress as our ability to arrive at a shared understanding of the world. The advancement of science depends on this, as does the accumulation of cultural knowledge in general. Every collaboration, whether in the solitude of a marriage or in a formal alliance between nations, requires that the beliefs of those involved remain open to mutual influence through conversation. Data on any topic—from climate science to epidemiology—must first be successfully communicated and <em>believed</em> before it can inform personal behavior or public policy. 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. Both human knowledge and human cooperation depend upon such feats of cognitive and emotional flexibility.”

Other observations from the paper: “It is well known that people often resist changing their beliefs when directly challenged, especially when these beliefs are central to their identity. In some cases, exposure to counterevidence may even increase a person’s confidence that his or her cherished beliefs are true. . . . One model of belief maintenance holds that when confronted with counterevidence, people experience negative emotions borne of conflict between the perceived importance of their existing beliefs and the uncertainty created by the new information.”

The human mind very much dislikes uncertainty. It is extremely adept at quickly and unconsciously removing uncertainty via rationalization and just making stuff up until uncertainty goes away. 

The paper raises some obvious questions. Is an inability to change another person’s mind through evidence and argument, or to have one’s own mind changed, a significant social problem? Is it more ethical or moral to retain one’s core beliefs, even when faced with evidence that those beliefs are factually wrong? In other words, is it better to stand on ideological or moral principle, or, is cognitive and emotional flexibility (pragmatism) a more ethical or moral mind set?

ScienceDaily also discusses this paper:

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