Cartoon of Red elephant and blue donkey from 900 x 760

Before the trolls on the Right and the Left sharpen their weaponized tongues, let me preempt: This is not a political rant. It is an attempt to fathom the phenomenon that baffles many Americans nowadays: How do people maintain their political beliefs, be it liberal or conservative, in the face of counter-evidence?


The psychological discomfort of cognitive dissonance

Watching the news, we have all had the occasion to watch politicians and clergymen railing against gays or child sexual abusers. So, when they were at a later date revealed to be gay or were arrested for child molestation, I often wondered: How did they feel when they issued their hypocritical pronouncements? Didn’t they feel even a smidgen of discomfort?

Psychologists have a name for this state of discomfort: Cognitive dissonanceAs defined in Wikipedia, it is

“the mental discomfort (psychological stress) experienced by a person who simultaneously holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values. The occurrence of cognitive dissonance is a consequence of a person’s performing an action that contradicts personal beliefs, ideals, and values; and also occurs when confronted with new information that contradicts said beliefs, ideals, and values.”

In a previous post, I wrote that the brain actually has a neuronal structure (the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex) that is designed to keep us honest. It seems like this area, among others, is the source of psychological discomfort with untruths. So, are these people especially adept at silencing it?

The answer is, probably not. They have other mechanisms to deal with their cognitive dissonance. Aesop’s fable of the fox and the grapes is a classic example of a strategy to deal with cognitive dissonance. A fox spies high-hanging grapes and wishes to eat them. When unable to reach the grapes, the fox decides the fruit are not worth eating, and justified his decision, claiming to himself, that the grapes are likely sour, for being unripe. The fox diminished the importance of the unattainable goal by criticizing the object as unworthy and so his psychological distress was resolved. Of course, objectively the grapes could have been sugar sweet, but the evidence be damned if it causes discomfort.

This is one example of what is called motivated reasoning. The processes of motivated reasoning are a type of inferred justification strategy which is used to mitigate cognitive dissonance. When people form and cling to false beliefs despite overwhelming evidence, they employ motivational reasoning strategy. In other words, according to Wikipedia, “rather than search rationally for information that either confirms or disconfirms a particular belief, people actually seek out information that confirms what they already believe.” This well-known strategy is called confirmation bias, in which people will accept evidence that comports with their belief, and reject evidence to the contrary. Many of us watch MSNBC, and many watch FOX NEWS, but we now know never the twain shall never meet.

All this is well-researched and amply documented psychology of behavior. But as common in science, every answer begets many questions. An important one is, are there any neural correlates that allow people to form and cling to false beliefs despite overwhelming evidence? In other words, are there brain regions that are designed to drown out that pesky “truth center” that keeps disturbing our psychological peace?


The Default Mode Network

When we are not involved in a task, when we daydream, or when our mind is wandering, the brain is not idle. In fact, it is highly active. A special network is activated, called the Default Mode Network or DMN. It sounds a bit strange: Why should the brain waste mental energy on doing nothing? In fact, it is not doing nothing. It is focusing on the inner self as opposed to the external environment. It brings to mind the ideas of mindfulness and meditation. It also explains why creative people almost invariably attribute their insights to periods of mind-wandering and daydreaming. In my own experience, I used to come up with solutions to seemingly knotty problems during my morning runs, when I was totally oblivious to any extraneous stimuli—a state of “disengagement” from physical discomfort and of clarity of mind.

Still, evolution didn’t invent a whole brain system so we can daydream. The real purpose of this system is homeostasis, maintenance of the normal physiological status. This is why this system is getting inputs from all body organs. One of the most important of these organs is the brain. So it would not be surprising if the DMN were involved in maintaining our peace of mind and suppressing anything that disturbs it.

In an article in Nature, Jonas Kaplan, Sarah Gimbel, and Sam Harris, at the University of Southern California, showed just that. They recruited 40 self-identified liberal students (Right wing trolls-take heed!) by having them fill out questionnaires about their political and social beliefs. Each participant read 8 political statements and 8 non-political statements. Each statement was followed by 5 challenges. Each challenge provided a counter-argument or evidence against the original statement. The statements concerned policy issues, such as “Abortion should be legal” and “taxes on the wealthy should generally be increased.” The non-political statements covered a wide range of topics such as “Taking daily multivitamins improves one’s health,” “A college education generally improves a person’s economic prospects,” and “Thomas Edison invented the light bulb.” The students underwent an fMRI examination at the time they were responding to the questions and the challenges. After the fMRI session, they were questioned again to gauge the strength of their beliefs following the challenges.

The results were really interesting, albeit quite predictable. Participants were especially resistant to arguments against political beliefs. Post-challenge belief strength was reduced for both political and non-political statements, indicating that counter-evidence did, at least temporarily, affect reported belief strength. However, the change was significantly greater for non-political beliefs. Follow-up questionnaires completed weeks later showed that reduced belief strength persisted for non-political beliefs, but not for the political beliefs.

The brain areas that gave a strong signal when political beliefs were challenged were part of the DMN (occipital cortex, inferior parietal lobule, medial parietal cortex, large areas of the temporal lobes, the lateral frontal cortex on both hemispheres, the medial prefrontal, the striatum, and the cerebellum). You don’t need to consult an atlas of the brain to realize that large areas of the brain were involved. There was also an emotional component to the perception of a challenge to deeply-held political beliefs: The amygdala and the anatomically and functionally connected insula cortex were activated. Both structures are involved in emotions. The amygdala, in particular, is involved in fear, fight, and anger responses to perceived physical threat. No wonder we sometimes see an out-of-proportion, even violent, visceral response to a political challenge.

Do you get the feeling that political beliefs are as deeply held, and as prone to evoking a strong visceral response, as religious beliefs are when challenged? You are right. The very same DMN brain system is activated when, in a different study, participants with strong beliefs about religion evaluated religious beliefs compared with non-religious beliefs.


Is the breach unbridgeable?

In the short term, it looks like the answer is in the affirmative. Just save your breath, my mind is made up. Don’t confuse me with facts. But in the long term…hope springs eternal. After all, even here, let alone Europe, we are witnessing a gradual decline in religious beliefs and religious fervor. Is political fervor to follow? Only time will tell.

Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD
Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD loves to write about the brain and human behavior as well as translate complicated basic science concepts into entertainment for the rest of us. He was a professor at the University of California San Francisco before leaving to enter the world of biotech. He served as the Chief Medical Officer of biotech companies, including Aphton Corporation. He also founded and served as the CEO of Madah Medica, an early stage biotech company developing products to improve post-surgical pain control. He is now retired and enjoys working out, following the stock market, travelling the world, and, of course, writing for TDWI.



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