Scientific Breakthroughs

Here’s Why the Brain Tends to Stick to Political Beliefs Despite Counter-Evidence

Why the Brain Tends to Stick to Political Beliefs Despite Counter-Evidence
PHOTOGRAPH: Sam Harris | Images of the brain — when individuals won’t change their minds.

Wondering why some people adhere to their political beliefs even when confronted with counter-evidence? Neuroscientists who studied the brain activity of 40 individuals using functional MRI noted that neural mechanisms govern the tendency of people to stick to their political beliefs notwithstanding contrary evidence presented.

The findings underscore the key role emotions play in belief-change resistance and present insights into the neural systems involved in how people maintain beliefs and reason out even when confronted with counter-evidence.  The study findings are also relevant as they offer greater understanding on how people respond to political news stories.

It turns out, individuals who tended to be most resistant to altering their beliefs had more activity in their amygdalae (the pair of almond-shaped areas near the brain’s center) and the insular cortex vis-a-vis people who were more willing to change their minds. The study findings of lead author Jonas Kaplan, an assistant research professor of psychology at University of Southern California’s Brain and Creativity Institute; co-author Sarah Gimbel of the Brain and Creativity Institute; and Sam Harris, a neuroscientist for the Los Angeles-based nonprofit Project Reason, were published in the Nature journal, Scientific Reports.

The Workings of the Brain

There is a system in the brain referred to as the Default Mode Network that surges in activity when beliefs are challenged. The idea is in synch with the tendency of people to less likely change their minds when feeling threatened or anxious.

The areas of the brain cited have been linked to thinking about who we are, Kaplan stated.  The study had some limitations — participants were more likely to change their beliefs for non-political statements than for political statements.

Nonetheless, it helps enlighten people who are perplexed on why certain individuals think and react the way they do, especially when it comes to upholding their political beliefs, notwithstanding valid evidence running counter to those beliefs.

Other Brain Studies

Emotions playing a role in cognition is also stressed in other neuroscience studies. From a scientific perspective, it turns out brain activity is linked with generous behavior. Research scientists tested to see if the human brain is hardwired for altruism.
True enough, scientists found that those with the most activity occurring in the prefrontal cortex (the part that regulates impulses) were the stingiest. On the other hand, the most generous subjects had heightened brain activity in regions linked to recognizing emotion and pain. The study findings were published in the journal Human Brain Mapping.
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