Why People Shut Down When Their Political Beliefs Are Challenged

Certain brain areas go into overdrive, treating opposing evidence like an existential threat.
Supporters of U.S. President-elect Donald Trump hold signs as they rally in New York's Times Square on Nov. 9, 2016.
Bria Webb/Reuters
Supporters of U.S. President-elect Donald Trump hold signs as they rally in New York's Times Square on Nov. 9, 2016.

When it comes to politics, why can’t we all just get along? New brain imaging research offers a rather alarming neurological explanation.

As we’ve repeatedly seen in this divisive post-election season, political beliefs are so deeply entrenched in the psyche that people will often defend them even in the face of overwhelming opposition and counterevidence.

A University of Southern California study, published in the journal Scientific Reports, shows that challenging someone’s political beliefs activates brain areas that are involved in personal identity and emotional response to threat. The brain’s alarms go off, the person feels threatened on a deeply personal and emotional level ― and then shuts down and disregards any rational evidence that contradicts what he or she holds true. Indeed, such evidence may only increase people’s conviction in their own beliefs.

As the study’s authors note, this shutdown of dialogue poses a serious problem for our shared future.

“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,” the researchers wrote. “Both human knowledge and human cooperation depend upon such feats of cognitive and emotional flexibility.”

For the study, the researchers asked a group of 40 liberal volunteers about their beliefs on a range of political and nonpolitical topics, including abortion, gay marriage, military spending, gun control, tax cuts for the wealthy and the death penalty, as well as politically neutral subjects like multivitamins, secondhand smoke and whether modern people are more informed.

Then, researchers scanned the volunteers’ brains using MRI while presenting them with arguments that contradicted their strongly held views. Afterward, they tested the strength of the participants’ beliefs again.

“The inability to change another person’s mind through evidence and argument ... stands out as a problem of great societal importance.”

- Authors of a recent University of Southern California study

Some stark differences quickly emerged between political and nonpolitical beliefs.

“We know that political beliefs are part of our personal identity,” Dr. Jonas Kaplan, a psychologist at USC’s Brain and Creativity Institute and the study’s lead author, told The Huffington Post in an email. “What we found in the brain is consistent with this, in that the ‘default mode network’ was more active when people read challenges to their political beliefs compared to nonpolitical beliefs.”

The default mode network is involved in self-reflection, thinking about one’s own past and future, and personal identity. In contrast to the executive attention network, which is activated when we’re focused on the external world, the default mode kicks into gear when we go inward and reflect on ourselves and our own experiences. The fact that political statements light up this brain network suggests that they are a deeply ingrained part of our personal identity.

“Political beliefs are like religious beliefs in the respect that both are part of who you are and important for the social circle to which you belong,” Kaplan added in a press release. “To consider an alternative view, you would have to consider an alternative version of yourself.”

In the brain scans below, you can see that political statements (depicted in yellow and red) and nonpolitical statements (shown in green and blue) activate different areas of the brain.

Scientific Reports

The participants also showed a much greater emotional response to political statements. The more emotionally attached the person was to a belief, the more active the emotional regions of the brain such as the amygdala and the insula became ― and the more participants resisted changing their minds.

“This is consistent with the idea that being confronted with arguments against our deeply held beliefs makes us feel bad, and then we work to get rid of those negative feelings by rationalizing - discounting the evidence or the source of the evidence, shoring up our arguments, etc.” the researchers observed.

When our deeply-held beliefs are challenged, we react as we would to other threats ― like a snake rustling in the grass or a fast-approaching car ― which also activate the insula and amygdala.

“We found some similarities between our beliefs being threatened and other kinds of threat in terms of the brain’s response,” Kaplan said. “Both the insula and the amygdala are sensitive to threats, and in our study, the signal we measured from these structures related to how people responded to the challenging information.”

These findings might help explain why people presented with arguments that challenge their beliefs ― whether on immigration rights, terrorism or trickle-down economics― are more likely to become hard-headed and defensive than to calmly listen and consider the evidence.

So is there any hope for getting through to the Donald Trump supporter in your life? Unfortunately, we don’t have a whole lot of answers for that one yet, but Kaplan says it’s an important direction for future research.

In the meantime, keep the lines of communication open. Nobody benefits when we all retreat into our separate camps and decide that everyone who disagrees with us is wrong.

This reporting is brought to you by HuffPost’s health and science platform, The Scope. Like us on Facebook and Twitter and tell us your story: scopestories@huffingtonpost.com.

Before You Go

Art of a Political Revolution