If anyone needs another reason to reduce Facebook time in the new year, it could be this: Getting into political arguments there—or anywhere—causes a neurological reaction that actually makes individuals double down on their beliefs.
According to a new study from neuroscientists at the University of Southern California’s Brain and Creativity Institute, emotional and identity centers in the brain are triggered when deeply held political beliefs are questioned, even with the use of otherwise compelling evidence. That leads to the more likely response of “I am threatened and need to stand my ground,” rather than “Hey, that’s a good point.”
What’s more, the researchers found it easier to sway opinions on non-political statements widely regarded as fact—Thomas Edison invented the lightbulb, college improves your financial prospects, fluoride helps prevent tooth decay, etc.—than stances on political issues.
“There was simply more at stake for the political beliefs than the non-political beliefs,” said lead author Jonas Kaplan, an assistant research professor of psychology at the Brain and Creativity Institute at USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. “Political beliefs are tied into our identities. Our sense of who we are.”
For the study, 40 self-identified liberals were examined through functional MRIs to see the neurological reactions when their beliefs were questioned. To begin, the test subjects rated how much they agreed with political and non-political statements on a 1-to-7 scale. Then, during MRIs, the participants were played eight political and eight non-political statements they “strongly agreed with,” followed by five counter-point statements—including some exaggerations and distortions.
For example, those who believed Edison invented the lightbulb heard challenging points such as, “Nearly 70 years before Edison, Humphrey Davy demonstrated an electric lamp to the Royal Society.” And those who believed there should be more restrictive gun control laws heard, “Ninety-eight percent of gun crimes are committed with stolen guns. People who possess guns illegally are unlikely to obey new laws regulating gun ownership.”
After hearing counterpoints, the subjects again rated how strongly they agreed with the original statements. For non-political topics, people became an average of one to two points less certain in their stances. There was virtually no change of mind for political topics.
The MRI results shed an interesting light on why that may be: Participants who didn’t change their beliefs had more activity during the questioning in the amygdalae and insular cortex.
“We believe the amygdala and insula, in this case, are reflecting the emotional nature of being challenged. When we are challenged on our most important beliefs, it doesn’t feel good, and we take action to mitigate those negative feelings,” said Kaplan. “Consistent with this idea, we found that people who activated these structure more when being challenged were less likely to change their minds.”
As for what that says about a more productive course for political debates, Kaplan said he wants to further explore how emotional regulation contributes to general open-mindedness. And while the current results show just how difficult it is to change opinions when it comes to abortion rights, gun control and the like, Kaplan personally believes that shouldn’t stop people from asking hard questions of each other—and still trying to see the alternate point of view.
“Having debate and discussion about these issues seems pretty important for a functioning democracy,” he said. “So I think we’d all benefit from understanding better how to have these conversations without getting defensive.”
Emily Glover is a freelance writer and amatuer presidential historian based in Colorado. You can find her on Twitter at @emmcglover