A look behind a changing mind

Successfully changing someone’s mind is incredibly challenging, especially because in some cases providing evidence that contradicts someone’s firmly-held beliefs may actually strengthen their confidence in their original stance. Picture yourself, for instance, convincing someone who is pro-life to be pro-choice, or vice versa. Challenging, but not impossible.

While we can attribute holding onto beliefs (even if they are false or outdated) to obstinance, the implications are slightly different for when a collective resists changing their position on highly polarized topics. The enactment of policy changes relies on the communication, and believability, of information on any topic (e.g., climate, vaccinations, educational practices, health practices; i.e., scientific data). So what’s going on in the brain when someone does change their mind? Understanding neural systems underlying belief maintenance can bring scientists closer to communicating new research in a way that makes people more amenable to updating their beliefs.

Recent research from a group at the University of Southern California (USC) examined brain activity in self-identified political liberals as they encountered arguments against their beliefs. The procedure was fairly straightforward. In the scanner, participants were presented with political and non-political statements which they had expressed strong agreement towards (e.g., Political statement: Welfare and food stamp programs offer necessary help to the poor. Non-political statement: Thomas Edison invented the light bulb). Then they read 5 statements that provided counterfactual evidence to their strongly agreed upon statement. Afterwards, the participants indicated how much they now agreed with the original statement.

The researchers found that participants were more open to change the strength of their beliefs for non-political statements than for political statements. Factors related to changing their beliefs included how credible and challenging the participants found the counter evidence statements to be.

Figure from Kaplan, Gimbel & Harris, 2016. Subjects who were more likely to change their beliefs after reading counter evidence exhibited lower activity in the dorsal anterior insula (A) and amygdala (B).

In the brain, reading statements that challenged political beliefs was associated with increased activity in regions of the default mode network, a network involved in self-representation and internal thoughts. Reading statements that challenged non-political beliefs was associated with increased brain activity in dorsolateral prefrontal cortices (dlPFC) and orbitofrontal cortices (OFC), regions involved in working memory, decision-making, and emotion. Statements with greater belief persistence was associated with greater activity in regions involved in decision making (e.g., the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex) and lower activity in regions involved in social and affective processing (e.g., OFC). Participants were more likely to change their beliefs if they showed less activity in regions associated with affective processing (e.g., the insula and amygdala). Collectively, these findings suggest that neural processes involved with internally-directed cognition, emotion, and memory become active when presented with evidence that challenges an individual’s beliefs. 

This seems to make sense. If someone was to provide counter evidence to ideas that I strongly hold, I would likely self-reflect and may be a little emotionally ridden. Knowing this, how can scientists communicate information in a way that is more conducive to updating beliefs? While this bears relevance given the current political state, it is an area that needs a lot more research. It is interesting to consider that not all strongly-held beliefs are equal in terms of openness to change; participants were more likely to accept challenges to their non-political beliefs than political ones. Perhaps it is an issue of framing issues. 

References

Bechara, A., Damasio, H., & Damasio, A. R. (2000). Emotion, decision making and the orbitofrontal cortex. Cerebral cortex10(3), 295-307.
Kaplan, J. T., Gimbel, S. I., & Harris, S. (2016). Neural correlates of maintaining one’s political beliefs in the face of counterevidence. Scientific Reports6.
Mars, R. B., & Grol, M. J. (2007). Dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, working memory, and prospective coding for action. Journal of Neuroscience27(8), 1801-1802