You’re arguing politics with a random stranger on the Internet, reasonably sharing facts that support your argument while asking for them to do the same. You can tell they’re getting irritated, and the further into the discussion you go, the more facts you cite in your argument, the more they get upset.
They start playing semantic games, deliberately misunderstand what you’re saying, run through the full list of logical fallacies, and eventually resort to outright hostility.
Why would anyone care more about winning an argument with a stranger than having their understanding of a subject reflect actual reality, so they can make rational decisions about that subject going forward? Why would anyone deliberately choose to be wrong, and then get upset when others try to correct them?
Because certain beliefs are a core part of some people’s core identity. So by attacking their beliefs, you’re attacking “them”.
Think about that woman at work who wears tie-dyed shirts, hangs dream catchers in her cubicle, and is always trying to sell you essential oils. You’re socially obligated to be friends on Facebook, but you’re tired of seeing outright nonsense from people like David Wolfe come through your feed. Yet, if you reply to some meme she shared by one those hucksters, that “no, hanging upside down does not cure the ‘toxic effects of gravity’, that’s not how anything works and here’s the Wikipedia article on Toxin to show that they’re not even using that word correctly”, at the very least she’ll make it awkward around the water cooler, if not start some unnecessary workplace drama.
But why though? For the same reason that she wears those tie-dyed shirts and hangs up those dream catchers: that’s who she is. And by correcting her, you’re chipping away at the identity she’s constructed for herself. It’s like telling the guy who’s spent tens of thousands of dollars on NFL memorabilia that you think it’s a bit ridiculous to be that interested in a sport you don’t play yourself: right or wrong, fact or opinion, it’s an attack on the person they see themselves as being.
Neuroscientists Jonas Kaplan, Sarah Gimbel, and Sam Harris (yes, that Sam Harris) conducted a study in which they attempted to isolate regions of the brain operating when a person is presented with facts that contradict their beliefs. Here’s the abstract:
People often discount evidence that contradicts their firmly held beliefs. However, little is known about the neural mechanisms that govern this behavior. We used neuroimaging to investigate the neural systems involved in maintaining belief in the face of counterevidence, presenting 40 liberals with arguments that contradicted their strongly held political and non-political views. Challenges to political beliefs produced increased activity in the default mode network—a set of interconnected structures associated with self-representation and disengagement from the external world. Trials with greater belief resistance showed increased response in the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex and decreased activity in the orbitofrontal cortex. We also found 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.
Essentially, the portions of the brain that were stimulated with thoughts that contradict belief are related to or overlap with the portions that are associated with identity. Further, based on this study, and a similar study conducted by this group, beliefs on politics and religion are much more likely to engage the area associated with identity.
We’re going to refrain from drawing any conclusions here; the Science is ongoing and certainly far from settled –just like that argument you’re having with the guy who has a cartoon frog for a profile picture, over whether or not it’s okay to punch someone who advocates for genocide.
Who knows, maybe all it’d take to solve a lot of these arguments, is an old-fashioned punch right to the dosrsomedial prefrontal cortex. Isn’t Science great?
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