Does politics bring out the best and the beast in you? Why do you become so passionate when there is a political discussion happening and you are with people who don’t share the same political views as you do? A new psychological study might answer your questions. According to the study, when our political views are questioned, the regions in our brain associated with personal identity, threat response and emotions become active. “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 the 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,” he said. The study, published in the journal Scientific Reports in December 2016, involved 40 healthy adults who identified themselves as politically liberal. The researchers hope to unearth the clues to talk politics without getting carried away emotionally and letting things escalate into a fight.
Politics and our emotions
The 40 participants in the interview were asked to read eight political and eight non-political statements. The political statements were those that aligned with their political beliefs like “Taxes on the wealthy should be increased” and “Abortion should be legal”. The nonpolitical statements were statements like “Taking a daily multivitamin improves one’s health” and “A college education generally improves a person’s economic prospects.”
Each participant was shown evidence challenging the statement they had just read and while they were reading the statements and counter-evidence, their brains were scanned in a functional MRI machine. After this, the participants completed the questionnaires which were given to them to measure how strongly they agreed with each statement they had seen.
After the brain scans were examined, the researchers found that when the participants were presented with evidence that challenged the political statements they agreed with, increased activity occurred in the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex (associated with emotion regulation) and decreased activity in the orbitofrontal cortex (associated with cognitive flexibility). The researchers found that when this counter–evidence was presented, “people with more amygdala activity while being challenged were less likely to change their minds,” Kaplan said. This basically means that a person is less likely to be persuaded when there is a lot of skepticism regarding the counter- evidence presented.
The amygdala is a part of the brain associated with emotion, fear and anxiety. They are two almond-shaped areas hugging the center of the brain near the front and they become active when people stick to their political beliefs, according to the findings of this study. The researchers also found that the participants were more likely to significantly change their beliefs regarding nonpolitical statements than political statements when provided with counter-evidence for the non-political ones.
However, Jonas Kaplan agrees that more research is required to understand all the ways in which political beliefs differ from non-political beliefs. “There are also several ways in which political beliefs differ from nonpolitical 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,” he 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 hopes further research could shed light on how to effectively dispute a political view without triggering an emotional response.