(Vox) A new brain study sheds light on why it can be so hard to change someone’s political beliefs
Why we react to inconvenient truths as if they were personal insults.
Albert Einstein was one of the most important physicists of all time. His scientific predictions have withstood 100 years of scientific challenges. His thinking fundamentally changed the way we understand the universe. Yet people are more likely to be convinced Einstein wasn’t a great physicist than to change their minds on topics like immigration or the death penalty.
It has nothing to do with a person’s intelligence (or the quality of information on Einstein or immigration policy). It’s due to the fact that we’re simply more open to changing our minds on nonpolitical topics. Scientists have been keen to figure out why — because if they can, it may open the door to the hardest challenge in politics right now: changing minds.
Psychologists have been circling around a possible reason political beliefs are so stubborn: Partisan identities get tied up in our personal identities. Which would mean that an attack on our strongly held beliefs is an attack on the self. And the brain is built to protect the self.
When we’re attacked, we evade or defend — as if we have an immune system for uncomfortable thoughts, one you can see working in real time.
“The brain’s primary responsibility is to take care of the body, to protect the body,” Jonas Kaplan, a psychologist at the University of Southern California, tells me. “The psychological self is the brain’s extension of that. When our self feels attacked, our [brain is] going to bring to bear the same defenses that it has for protecting the body.”
Recently, Kaplan has found more evidence that we tend to take political attacks personally. In a study recently published in Scientific Reports, he and collaborators took 40 self-avowed liberals who reported having “deep convictions,” put them inside in a functional MRI scanner, and started challenging their beliefs. Then they watched which parts of the participants’ brains lit up. Their conclusion: When the participants were challenged on their strongly held beliefs, there was more activation in the parts of the brain that are thought to correspond with self-identity and negative emotions.
The study is limited. But it is intriguing new evidence that we mistake ideological challenges as personal insults. This suggests that to change minds, we need to separate opinions from identities — a task that proves particularly hard with politics.