Here’s Why People Become Angry When Their Political Beliefs Are Challenged

LOS ANGELES (CBSLA.com) — When it comes to politics, it can be difficult to accept the other side. Some friendships have even ended as a result of opposing political views. Last November’s presidential election is a prime example of a politically divided America.

So why do people get emotional and even angry when their political beliefs are challenged? USC Professor Jonas Kaplan‘s research shows the brain may actually be to blame.

The cognitive neuroscientist started studying how the brain reacts when one’s political beliefs are challenged a few years ago, not realizing how America’s political climate would turn out.

“I don’t think we could have predicted how much these issues would be on everybody’s minds when we finished the study several years later.” Kaplan said.

The Assistant Research Professor of Psychology at USC’s Brain and Creativity Institute used MRI to scan the brains of 40 liberal participants, watching their brain chemistry as his team tried to sway their political positions.

The parts of the brain that were triggered control deep, emotional thoughts about personal identity.

“When people activate these emotional structures of the brain more, when they’re being challenged, they’re less likely to change their minds,” the professor explained.

Their brains were emotionally threatened and went into defense mode, shutting down any willingness to accept counter arguments, Kaplan added.

Max Henning is a participant in the study. “People don’t often realize how automatic it can be to push back on information that you disagree with, even if you identify as a person that is open to new ideas,” he said.

So if people are biologically wired to block opposing political views, is there any prospect for a peaceful future?

Kaplan said a few brains did show a very slight ability to change. “Maybe that is a sign of hope, a crack in the door there a little bit. But I do think that is very difficult for us to change our minds about these things that are so important to us and that define us,” the neuroscientist explained.

Researchers plan to do a followup story on how the body responds physiologically when political beliefs are challenged. Some of the areas they will focus on include heart rate and breathing.

They will also study the brains of conservatives to see if they also stand firm in their convictions.

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