A new study may shed some light on why we get so emotional and passionate about politics. Researchers found when political views are challenged, regions of the brain associated with personal identity, threat response and emotions become activated.
“We think it’s because political beliefs are important to our identity, to our sense of who we are. They are part of our social selves as well and can define who we spend time with and how they relate to us,” said Jonas Kaplan, assistant research professor of Psychology at the University of Southern California’s Brain and Creativity Institute, who was lead author of the study. “When the brain considers something to be part of itself, whether it’s a body part or a belief, then it protects it in the same way.”
Researchers hope that their new findings can provide a way for people to talk about politics without the impending emotional fight.
The study, published in the journal Scientific Research, looked at 40 healthy adults who all identified as politically liberal. While being scanned in a functional MRI machine, the volunteers were read statements that correlated with their political beliefs, such as “Abortion should be legal.” They were also read nonpolitical statements, such as “Taking a daily multivitamin improves one’s health.” The participants were then shown evidence challenging the statement.
Later, the volunteers were asked to complete a questionnaire that gauged how strongly they agreed with each statement.
The researchers found, after reviewing the brain scans, that when the participants were confronted with statements they did not agree with, there was increased activity in the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex and decreased activity in the orbitofrontal cortex. The dorsomedial prefrontal cortex is linked to emotion regulation, and the orbitofrontal cortex is associated with cognitive flexibility.
“These are two regions we didn’t specifically predict would play a role in our study, so we interpret them with some degree of caution,” Kaplan said.
However, Kaplan and his team did find that people who were presented with counter-evidence to political statements showed more activity in the amygdala — the part of the brain linked to emotion, fear and anxiety — were less likely to change their minds.
Researchers believe the increased amygdala activity is linked with an increase in skepticism of the counter-evidence. In other words, this could be an important neural sign that a person is less likely to be persuaded to change their mind.
But this was not true for nonpolitical statements. Participants were significantly more likely to be convinced to change their beliefs when they were given counter-evidence for nonpolitical statements.
Further research is needed in order to perform the same study on a group of politically conservative people or less committed liberals.
“There are also several ways in which political beliefs differ from non political beliefs, and from this study alone, we weren’t able to explore them all to understand what is the real basis for the differences we found,” Kaplan said. “For example, this group of people, chosen for their strong political beliefs, probably had more existing knowledge about the political topics we challenged compared with the nonpolitical topics.”
Kaplan also hopes future research will help illuminate how to successfully challenge a political view without causing an explosive, emotional response.
Danielle Tarasiuk is a multimedia journalist based in Los Angeles. Her work has been published on AllDay.com, Yahoo! Sports, KCET, and NPR-affiliate stations KPCC and KCRW. She’s a proud Sarah Lawrence College and USC Annenberg alumn.