Sunday, January 15, 2017

Neuroscience Can't Heal a Divided Nation

Brain activation during challenges to political vs. non-political beliefs (Figure modified from Kaplan et al., 2016).

Lately I've been despairing about the state of America.

I'm not sure how denying access to affordable health care, opposing scientific facts like global warming and the benefits of vaccines, alienating our allies, banning Muslims, building a wall, endorsing torture, and reviving nuclear proliferation are supposed to “make American great again” (as if the U.S. is a backward, put-upon, and defeated nation).

Cancer survivor (and former Republican Jeff Jeans) 1

Why do so many Americans believe that a corrupt, lying billionaire will improve their economic standing?

This way of thinking is alien to me. Is there anything that could change my mind about even one of these issues? What happens when you challenge an opponent's strongly held political views?  Typically, he will double down and affirm his closely held beliefs even more strongly. Why?

As a general slogan, The Personal Is Political is not limited to white radical feminists of the 1960s.2 Much to the dismay of fundamentalist Christians and male white supremacists in the alt-right, their respective personal identities are also closely entwined with their political views. And in turn the “political” is based on a religious/moral/ethical mindset (or an anti-religious/amoral/unethical worldview, as the case may be).

Although Trump supporters (and privileged Liberals gnashing their teeth) would like you to believe that the term “identity politics” is divisive and limited to groups like the LGBT community, the Black Lives Matter movement, Tumblr feminists, SJWs, hard-working undocumented immigrants, and 1.6 billion Muslims who live in hundreds of different countries, they too cling to their groups' identity politics. Across the political spectrum, then, an attack on your core beliefs is taken an attack on you personally. All this arguing about politics with someone on the internet is pointless, because the opponents hold an unimaginably different worldview, or else they delight in outrage.

Appealing to an ideological opponent using an argument based on one's own moral framework is doomed to failure. To briefly generalize, conservatives value in-group loyalty, respect for authority, and purity. Liberals, on the other hand, favor fairness and reciprocity, caring, and protection from harm. Talking to the other camp in terms of your own values is ineffective. But that's what we always do anyway. According to Feinberg and Willer (2015):
(a) political advocates spontaneously make arguments grounded in their own moral values, not the values of those targeted for persuasion, and (b) political arguments reframed to appeal to the moral values of those holding the opposing political position are typically more effective.

In one study, conservatives were slightly more likely to support the Affordable Care Act (ObamaCare) when the arguments in favor were framed in a “purity” context compared to a “fairness” context (Feinberg & Willer, 2015):

Purity.The absence of universal healthcare in the United States practically ensures that we will have unclean, infected, and diseased Americans walking among us.

Fairness.In its current state healthcare in the U.S. is inherently unfair and unjust.”

The purity argument went to outrageous lengths, however:

Purity.  “These diseases [of poverty] are disgusting infestations that invade the human body and leech out needed nutrients to survive. Many of these diseases have grotesque symptoms like yellowing of the skin and eyes, coughing up bloody mucus, itchy rashes, and lesions. These diseases are contagious and spread through the population infecting many, including those who are not poor.”

Other arguments included Gay Americans are Proud and Patriotic Americans (to promote conservative support for gay marriage) and The Military Provides a Fair Chance for Minorities and the Poor (to promote liberal support for military spending). Are there specific areas of the brain associated with greater (or lesser) willingness to change one's beliefs when presented with persuasive opposing evidence? This is one aim of the newly emerging field of political neuroscience.

Can Neuroimaging Heal a Divided Country?

Press Release: When political beliefs are challenged, a person’s brain becomes active in areas that govern personal identity and emotional responses to threats, USC researchers find

This study examined what happened in the brain when the political views of 40 liberals were challenged (Kaplan et al., 2016). What can we learn from this fMRI study, beyond what we already know from political psychology? Jumping ahead, the major conclusions were...
  • The political is personal.
  • When political beliefs are challenged, people get emotional.
...which we already knew. And this quote from the first author strengthened my bias against the study:
“...Kaplan says a good way to make facts matter is to remind people that who they are and what they believe are two separate things.”

Identity politics be damned! Good luck with that! But then I read another quote from Kaplan:
“Political beliefs are like religious beliefs in the respect that both are part of who you are and important for the social circle to which you belong ... To consider an alternative view, you would have to consider an alternative version of yourself.”

This seemed much more insightful, so I took a closer look at the paper. From the outset, one notable limitation is that no conservatives were included in the study. The only participants were politically avid young people who identified as strong liberals. They read eight political statements and eight non-political statements they strongly agreed with (as rated in a pre-scan questionnaire). Each statement was followed by five “challenges” that presented a counter-argument. Then they rated their belief in each statement on a scale of 1 (strongly disbelieve) to 7 (strongly believe).

Fig S1 (Kaplan et al., 2016).

Here are some examples.

Political statements

The U.S. should reduce its military budget.

The laws regulating gun ownership in the United States should be made more restrictive.

Welfare and food stamp programs offer necessary help to the poor.

Nonpolitical statements

Long term exposure to second-hand smoke is a significant health concern.

Lowering one's consumption of foods that are high in cholesterol is a good way to prevent heart disease.

People tend to feel the most trust for those who are most like them racially, culturally, economically, etc.

To be as compelling as possible, the challenges were often exaggerations or distortions of the truth. For the military budget example, one of the challenges was “Russia has nearly twice as many active nuclear weapons as the United States” (which is untrue; the number is 1,740 vs. 2,150 for the US). We can ask, is it really fair to lie to persuade someone to change their opinions? Then again, this is a mild distortion compared to some of the whoppers thrown out during the 2016 Presidential Race (and beyond).

Alas, the challenges weren't all that successful in persuading participants to change their minds about political statements. Ratings dropped by only .3, going from 6.8 to 6.5. And there was virtually no variability across subjects. Belief strength in non-political statements showed greater flexibility, dropping by 1.3 (with slightly more variability across subjects). This becomes important when we look at the brain-behavior correlations below.

For the fMRI data, three task periods were modeled (Statement, Challenge, and Rating) and compared for political vs. non-political trials. Activation maps were reported for the Challenge phase (Fig. 2 below). However, the statistical analysis used a cluster threshold that was overly liberal (see Cluster Failure), which raises the possibility of inflated false positive findings.3

Fig. 2 (Kaplan et al., 2016). In red/yellow, brain regions that showed increased signal while processing challenges to political beliefs (P > NP). In blue/green, brain regions that showed increased signal during challenges to non-political beliefs (NP > P).

At any rate, the authors argued that the big yellow blobs in the default mode network (precuneus, posterior cingulate, medial prefrontal cortex, inferior parietal lobe, and anterior temporal lobe) indicate that participants were accessing their self-identity during challenges to political beliefs: “Given the personal importance of political beliefs for the subjects enrolled in this study, we expected our stimuli to evoke cognition related to social identity.” But just as easily, they could have been disengaging from the task of reading the challenges (mind wandering), which is also associated with the DMN.4 Perhaps the participants found the political challenges more far-fetched than the non-political challenges.

Since it was impossible to correlate brain activity with political belief change across individuals (due to low variance), belief change in the impersonal, non-political condition was examined. But here, in contrast to the other whole-brain analyses, regions of interest (ROIs) in the amygdala and the insula were selected because of their status as “emotion” areas. The finding was that...
...participants who changed their minds more showed less BOLD signal in the insula and the amygdala when evaluating counterevidence. These results highlight the role of emotion in belief-change resistance and offer insight into the neural systems involved in belief maintenance, motivated reasoning, and related phenomena.

But this result has no direct relationship to emotional responses or belief change in the political condition, which is what some pop neuro articles claimed.

Overall, the fMRI data can be interpreted to fit a known narrative. The authors are quite correct that “the inability to change another person’s mind through evidence and argument, or to have one’s own mind changed in turn, stands out as a problem of great societal importance.” But they haven't persuaded me that neuroimaging can further our knowledge of how to go about this. Our collective well-being and survival may depend on the ability to change others' minds, now more than ever.

Further Reading: these two Vox pieces are pretty good.

A new brain study sheds light on why it can be so hard to change someone's political beliefs

Most people are bad at arguing. These 2 techniques will make you better.


1 In one night, the GOP voted to take away these 6 essential health benefits
  1. Protect people with pre-existing conditions
  2. Let young adults stay on their parents’ plan
  3. Maintain access to contraceptive coverage
  4. Ensure Medicaid expansion stays in place
  5. Protect children on Medicaid or CHIP
  6. Protect veterans’ health care
2 Did you know the core argument of this radical manifesto by Carol Hanisch? I didn't either. It's that women are really neat people!! How outrageous, how scandalous and offensive!
This is part of one of the most important theories we are beginning to articulate. We call it “the pro-woman line.” What it says basically is that women are really neat people. The bad things that are said about us as women are either myths (women are stupid), tactics women use to struggle individually (women are bitches), or are actually things that we want to carry into the new society and want men to share too (women are sensitive, emotional).

3 Kaplan et al. used a Z threshold of 2.3 and a cluster size probability threshold of p < 0.05. Although they used FSL FLAME1, which fared well in the Cluster Failure paper (Eklund et al., 2016), a post in the OHBM blog questioned whether this was true for task activation data:
The resting state data have a low true between-subject variance, leading to lower FWE than we might see with task data where systematic differences in task performance might indeed yield the predicted large between-subject differences. This is supported by a secondary simulation using task fMRI data with randomly assigned groups that found FLAME1 to have error rates comparable to FSL’s OLS [which were high].

4 Although the relationship between DMN activity and mind wandering isn't as straightforward anymore (Kucyi et al., 2016; Mittner et al., 2016)...


Feinberg, M., & Willer, R. (2015). From Gulf to Bridge: When Do Moral Arguments Facilitate Political Influence? Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 41 (12), 1665-1681 DOI: 10.1177/0146167215607842

Kaplan, J., Gimbel, S., & Harris, S. (2016). Neural correlates of maintaining one’s political beliefs in the face of counterevidence. Scientific Reports, 6. DOI: 10.1038/srep39589

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At January 20, 2017 2:56 PM, Anonymous Pablo said...

Encuentro el tema muy interesante y creo que nos lleva a preguntar ¿Cómo modificar las creencias, en muchos casos muy irracionales, tan arraigadas y que pueden determinar las políticas a seguir de un país.


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