The Neuroscience of Why People Won’t Budge on Their Beliefs
When it comes to climate change, gun control, and vaccinations, facts don’t change people’s minds—but there is one technique that might.
Dr. Tali Sharot is the author of The Influential Mind (2017) and The Optimism Bias (2012). She is an Associate Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience, and the founder and director of the Affective Brain Lab, at University College London. Her papers on decision making, emotion, and influence have been published in Nature, Science, Nature Neuroscience, Psychological Science, and many others. She has been featured in numerous outlets and written for The New York Times, Time Magazine, Washington Post, CNN, BBC, and more.
Tali Sharot: So most of us think that information is the best way to convince people of our truth, and in fact it doesn’t work that well.We see that all the time. We see it with climate change, where there’s tons of data suggesting that climate change is man-made but about 50 percent of the population doesn’t believe it, or with people arguing about things like how many people were in the presidential inauguration. So we have facts but people decide which facts they want to listen to, which facts they want to take and change their opinions, and which they want to disregard. And one of the reasons for this is when something doesn’t conform to what I already believe, what people tend to do is either disregard it or rationalize it away; because information doesn’t take into account what makes us human, which is our emotions, our desires, our motives and our prior beliefs.
So for example, in one study my colleagues and I tried it to see whether we could use science to change people’s opinions about climate change. The first thing we did was ask people, “Do you believe in man-made climate change? Do you support the Paris Agreement?” And based on their answers we divided them into the strong believers and the weak believers. And then we gave them information.
For some people we said that scientists have reevaluated the data and now conclude that things are actually much worse than they thought before, that the temperature would rise by about seven degrees to ten degrees. For some people we said the scientists have reevaluated the data and they now believe that actually this situation is not as bad as they thought, it’s much better, and the rise in temperature would be quite small.
And what we found is that people who did not believe in climate change, when they heard that the scientists are saying, “Actually it’s not that bad,” they changed their beliefs even more in that direction, so they became more extremist in that direction, but when they heard that the scientists think it’s much worse they didn’t nudge.
And the people who already believe that climate change is man-made, when they heard that scientists are saying things are much worse than they said before, they moved more in that direction, so they became more polarized, but when they heard scientists are saying it’s not that bad they didn’t nudge much. So we gave people information and as a result it caused polarization, it didn’t cause people to come together.
So the question is, what’s happening inside our brain that causes this? And in one study my colleagues and I scanned brain activity of two people who were interacting, and what we found was when those two people agreed on a question that we gave them, the brain was really encoding what the other person was saying, the details that they gave; but when the two people disagreed it looked metaphorically as if the brain was switching off and not encoding what the other person was saying.And as a result when the two agreed they became even more confident, but when they disagreed there wasn’t as much of a change in their confidence in their own view.
What has been shown by Kahan and colleagues from Yale University is that the more intelligent you are the more likely you are to change data at will. So what they did is they first gave participants in their experiment analytical and math questions to solve, and then they gave them data about gun control: is gun control actually reducing violence? And they found that more “intelligent” people actually were more likely to twist data at will to make it conform to what they already believed.So it seems that people are using their intelligence not necessarily to find the truth, but to take in the information and change it to conform to what they already believe. So that suggests that just giving people information without considering first where they’re coming from may backfire at us, but we don’t always need to go against someone’s conviction in order to change their behavior, and let me give you an example.
So this is a study that was conducted at UCLA where what they wanted to do is convince parents to vaccinate their kids. And some of the parents didn’t want to vaccinate their kids because they were afraid of the link with autism.So they had two approaches, first they said, “Well the link with autism is actually not real, here’s all the data suggesting there isn’t a link between vaccines and autism.” And it didn’t really work that well. But instead they used another approach. So instead of going that way they used another approach, which was: let’s not talk about autism, we don’t necessarily need to talk about autism to convince you to vaccinate your kids. Instead they said, “Well look, these vaccines protect kids from deadly diseases, from the measles,” and they showed them pictures of what the measles are. Because in this argument about vaccines people actually forgot what the vaccines are for, what are they protecting us from. And they highlighted that and didn’t necessarily go on to discuss autism. That had a much better outcome. The parents were much more likely to say, “Yes we are going to vaccinate our kids.”
So the lesson here is that we need to find the common motive. The common motive in this case was the health of the children, not necessarily going back to the thing that they were arguing about, that they disagreed about.
If you want someone to see an issue rationally, you just show them the facts, right? No one can refute a fact. Well, brain imaging and psychological studies are showing that, society wide, we may be on the wrong path by holding evidence up as an Ace card. Neuroscientist Tali Sharot and her colleagues have proven that reading the same set of facts polarizes groups of people even further, because of our in-built confirmation biases—something we all fall prey to, equally. In fact, Sharot cites research from Yale University that disproves the idea that the social divisions we are experiencing right now—over climate change, gun control, or vaccines—are somehow the result of an intelligence gap: smart people are just as illogical, and what's more, they are even more skilled at skewing data to align with their beliefs. So if facts aren't the way forward, what is? There is one thing that may help us swap the moral high ground for actual progress: finding common motives. Here, Sharot explains why identifying a shared goal is better than winning a fight. Tali Sharot's newest book is out now: The Influential Mind: What the Brain Reveals about Our Power to Change Others.
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The world's 10 most affected countries are spending up to 59% of their GDP on the effects of violence.
- Conflict and violence cost the world more than $14 trillion a year.
- That's the equivalent of $5 a day for every person on the planet.
- Research shows that peace brings prosperity, lower inflation and more jobs.
- Just a 2% reduction in conflict would free up as much money as the global aid budget.
- Report urges governments to improve peacefulness, especially amid COVID-19.
What is the price of peace?
Or put another way, how much better off would we all be in a world where armed conflict was avoided?
To give some context, 689 million people - more than 9% of the world's population - live on less than $1.90 a day, according to World Bank figures, underscoring the potential impact peace-building activities could have.
Just over 10% of global GDP is being spent on containing, preventing and dealing with the consequences of violence. As well as the 1.4 million violent deaths each year, conflict holds back economic development, causes instability, widens inequality and erodes human capital.
Putting a price tag on peace and violence helps us see the disproportionately high amounts spent on creating and containing violent acts compared to what is spent on building resilient, productive, and peaceful societies.
—Steve Killelea, founder and executive chairman, Institute for Economics & Peace (IEP)
The cost of violence
In a report titled "The Economic Value of Peace 2021", the IEP says that for every death from violent conflict, 40 times as many people are injured. The world's 10 most affected countries are spending up to 59% of their GDP on the effects of violence.
Grounds for hope
But the picture is not all bleak. The economic impact of violence fell for the second year in a row in 2019, as parts of the world became more peaceful.
The global cost dropped by $64 billion between 2018 and 2019, even though it was still $1.2 trillion higher than in 2012.
In five regions of the world the costs increased in 2019. The biggest jump was in Central America and the Caribbean, where a rising homicide rate pushed the cost up 8.3%.
Syria, with its ongoing civil war, suffered the greatest economic impact with almost 60% of its GDP lost to conflict in 2019. That was followed by Afghanistan (50%) and South Sudan (46%).
The report makes a direct link between peace and prosperity. It says that, since 2000, countries that have become more peaceful have averaged higher GDP growth than those which have become more violent.
"This differential is significant and represents a GDP per capita that is 30% larger when compounded over a 20-year period," the report says adding that peaceful countries also have substantially lower inflation and unemployment.
"Small improvements in peace can have substantial economic benefits," it adds. "For example, a 2% reduction in the global impact of violence is roughly equivalent to all overseas development aid in 2019."
Equally, the total value of foreign direct investment globally only offsets 10% of the economic impact of violence. Authoritarian regimes lost on average 11% of GDP to the costs of violence while in democracies the cost was just 4% of GDP.
And the gap has widened over time, with democracies reducing the cost of violence by almost 16% since 2007 while in authoritarian countries it has risen by 27% over the same period.
The report uses 18 economic indicators to evaluate the cost of violence. The top three are military spending (which was $5.9 trillion globally in 2019), the cost of internal security which makes up over a third of the total at $4.9 trillion and homicide.
Peace brings prosperity
The formula also contains a multiplier effect because as peace increases, money spent containing violence can instead be used on more productive activities which drive growth and generate higher monetary and social returns.
"Substantial economic improvements are linked to improvements in peace," says the report. "Therefore, government policies should be directed to improving peacefulness, especially in a COVID-19 environment where economic activity has been subdued."
The IEP says what it terms "positive peace" is even more beneficial than "negative peace" which is simply the absence of violence or the fear of violence. Positive peace involves fostering the attitudes, institutions & structures that create and sustain peaceful societies.
The foundations of a positively peaceful society, it says, are: a well functioning government, sound business environment, acceptance of the rights of others, good relations with neighbours, free flow of information, high levels of human capital, low levels of corruption and equitable distribution of resources.
The World Economic Forum's report Mobilizing the Private Sector in Peace and Reconciliation urged companies large and small to recognise their potential to work for peace quoting the former Goldman Sachs chair, the late Peter Sutherland, who said: "Business thrives where society thrives."
The lush biodiversity of South America's rainforests is rooted in one of the most cataclysmic events that ever struck Earth.
- One especially mysterious thing about the asteroid impact, which killed the dinosaurs, is how it transformed Earth's tropical rainforests.
- A recent study analyzed ancient fossils collected in modern-day Colombia to determine how tropical rainforests changed after the bolide impact.
- The results highlight how nature is able to recover from cataclysmic events, though it may take millions of years.
About 66 million years ago, a massive asteroid slammed into present-day Chicxulub, Mexico, triggering the extinction of dinosaurs. Scientists estimate the impact killed 75 percent of life on Earth. But what's remained more mysterious is how the event shaped the future of plant life, specifically tropical rainforests.
A new study published in Science explores how the so-called bolide impact at the end of the Cretaceous period paved the way for the evolution of our modern rainforests, the most diverse terrestrial ecosystems on Earth.
For the study, researchers analyzed thousands of samples of fossil pollen, leaves, and spores collected from various sites across Colombia. The researchers analyzed the samples to determine which types of plants were dominant, the diversity of plant life, and how insects interacted with plants.
All samples dated back to the Cretaceous-Paleogene boundary, some 70 million to 56 million years ago. Back then, the region's climate was mostly humid and hot, as it is today. However, the composition and structure of forests were quite different before the impact, according to the study results.
Tropical jungle with river and sun beam and foggy in the gardenSASITHORN via Adobe Stock
For one, the region's rainforests used to have a roughly equal mix of angiosperms (shrubs and flowering trees) and plants like conifers and ferns. The rainforests also had a more open canopy structure, which allowed more light to reach the forest floor and meant that plants faced less competition for light.
What changed after the asteroid hit? The results suggest the impact and its aftermath led to a 45 percent decrease in plant diversity, a loss from which the region took about 6 million years to recover. But different plants came to replace the old ones, with an increasing proportion of flowering plants sprouting up over the millennia.
"A single historical accident changed the ecological and evolutionary trajectory of tropical rainforests," Carlos Jaramillo, study author and paleopalynologist at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama City, told Science News. "The forests that we have today are really the by-product of what happened 66 million years ago."
Today's rainforests are significantly more biodiverse than they were 66 million years ago. One potential reason is that the more densely packed canopy structure of the post-impact era increased competition among plants, "leading to the vertical complexity seen in modern rainforests," the researchers wrote.
The extinction of long-necked, leaf-eating dinosaurs probably helped maintain this closed-canopy structure. Also boosting biodiversity was ash from the impact, which effectively fertilized the soil by adding more phosphorus. This likely benefited flowering plants over the conifers and ferns of the pre-impact era.
In addition to unraveling some of the mysteries about the origins of South America's lush biodiversity, the findings highlight how, even though life finds a way to recover from catastrophe, it can take a long time.
Evolution doesn't clean up after itself very well.
- An evolutionary biologist got people swapping ideas about our lingering vestigia.
- Basically, this is the stuff that served some evolutionary purpose at some point, but now is kind of, well, extra.
- Here are the six traits that inaugurated the fun.
Natural selection, after all, has no reason to clear away unnecessary traits if they pose no evolutionary disadvantage. And when we say "started the whole thing," what we mean is that, this being Twitter, some arguing was inevitable. Some people took issue with Amir's use of the word "vestigial." One issue with the word is that early traits may still be beneficial in ways we don't yet know — the microbiome-managing appendix and the immune system's tonsils were both considered among these for some time. A trait's stated assumed value is also always just our best guess, so a certain amount of uncertainty is understood to be baked-in. It's important to remember, too, that if a mutation just happened to happen and persisted because it was useful, it's not the same thing as saying it has a reason to exist. The reason was randomness, unless one doesn't believe in evolution.
The plica semilunaris
The human eye in alarming detail. Image source: Henry Gray / Wikimedia commons
At the inner corner of our eyes, closest to the nasal ridge, is that little pink thing, which is probably what most of us call it, called the caruncula. Next to it is the plica semilunairs, and it's what's left of a third eyelid that used to — ready for this? — blink horizontally. It's supposed to have offered protection for our eyes, and some birds, reptiles, and fish have such a thing.
Palmaris longus muscle. Image source: Wikimedia commons
We don't have much need these days, at least most of us, to navigate from tree branch to tree branch. Still, about 86 percent of us still have the wrist muscle that used to help us do it. To see if you have it, place the back of you hand on a flat surface and touch your thumb to your pinkie. If you have a muscle that becomes visible in your wrist, that's the palmaris longus. If you don't, consider yourself more evolved (just joking).
Darwin's tubercle. Image source: Wikimedia commons
Yes, maybe the shell of you ear does feel like a dried apricot. Maybe not. But there's a ridge in that swirly structure that's a muscle which allowed us, at one point, to move our ears in the direction of interesting sounds. These days, we just turn our heads, but there it is.
Goosebumps. Photo credit: Tyler Olson via Shutterstock
It's not entirely clear what purpose made goosebumps worth retaining evolutionarily, but there are two circumstances in which they appear: fear and cold. For fear, they may have been a way of making body hair stand up so we'd appear larger to predators, much the way a cat's tail puffs up — numerous creatures exaggerate their size when threatened. In the cold, they may have trapped additional heat for warmth.
Image source: Decade3d-anatomy online via Shutterstock
Way back, we had tails that probably helped us balance upright, and was useful moving through trees. We still have the stump of one when we're embryos, from 4–6 weeks, and then the body mostly dissolves it during Weeks 6–8. What's left is the coccyx.
The palmar grasp reflex
Palmar reflex activated! Photo credit: Raul Luna on Flickr
You've probably seen how non-human primate babies grab onto their parents' hands to be carried around. We used to do this, too. So still, if you touch your finger to a baby's palm, or if you touch the sole of their foot, the palmar grasp reflex will cause the hand or foot to try and close around your finger.
Other people's suggestions
Amir's followers dove right in, offering both cool and questionable additions to her list.
Lower mouth plate behind your teeth. Some have protruding bone under the skin which is a throw back to large fangs. Almost like an upsidedown Sabre Tooth.— neil crud (@neilcrud66) January 16, 2019
Hypnic jerk as you fall asleep
What about when you “jump” just as you’re drifting off to sleep, I heard that was a reflex to prevent falling from heights.— Bann face (@thebanns) January 16, 2019
This thing, often called the "alpha jerk" as you drop into alpha sleep, is properly called the hypnic jerk,. It may actually be a carryover from our arboreal days. The hypothesis is that you suddenly jerk awake to avoid falling out of your tree.
Nails screeching on a blackboard response?
Everyone hate the sound of fingernails on a blackboard. It's _speculated_ that this is a vestigial wiring in our head, because the sound is similar to the shrill warning call of a chimp. https://t.co/ReyZBy6XNN— Pet Rock (@eclogiter) January 16, 2019
Ok what is Hair in the ears for? I think cuz as we get older it filters out the BS.— Sarah21 (@mimix3) January 16, 2019
You may be onto something. Tooth-bearing with the jaw clenched is generally recognized as a signal of submission or non-threatening in primates. Involuntary smiling or laughing in tense situations might have signaled that you weren’t a threat.— Jager Tusk (@JagerTusk) January 15, 2019
Sometimes it feels like my big toe should be on the side of my foot, was that ever a thing?— B033? K@($ (@whimbrel17) January 16, 2019
Twitter should always be so much fun.
Global inequality takes many forms, including who has lost the most children
- A first-of-its-kind study examines the number of mothers who have lost a child around the world.
- The number is related to infant mortality rates in a country but is not identical to it.
- The lack of information on the topic leaves a lot of room for future research.
Among the best indicators of societal progress over the last few decades has been the remarkable decline in infant and child mortality rates worldwide. In the early sixties, a staggering 1 in 4 children around the world died. Today, that rate has fallen to fewer than 1 in 10. The continued efforts of several organizations will help that number to fall even further.
However, like many other kinds of progress, the blessings of these advances have been shared unequally. Child mortality rates are much higher in some parts of the world than in others. Additionally, measuring infant mortality by itself doesn't tell the whole story. While conditions are improving, the legacy of high child mortality rates endures.
In hopes of shedding light on both issues, a first-of-its-kind study suggests that mothers in some parts of the world remain astronomically more likely to lose a child than others.
Bereavement around the world
An international team of researchers led by Dr. Emily Smith-Greenaway examined data from 170 countries. By combining information on child mortality, maternal life expectancy, the fertility rate, and the proportion of women in the country who have children, among other statistics, the researchers were able to create indices of the number of mothers per thousand who lost a child either before the age of one or five, or ever, for nearly every country in the world.
Cumulative prevalence of infant mortality for mothers age 20–44. Notice the groupings of countries at both the high and low ends of the scale. (scale is per thousand) USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences
The results are quite shocking.
As seen in the above map, the countries with the highest maternal bereavement rates are clustered in sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East. Hong Kong has the lowest maternal bereavement rate of any measured locale in the world at 2.8 per 1000, while Sierra Leone has the highest at 303.3 per 1000, nearly 1 in 3. A mother in Sierra Leone is 108 times more likely to have lost a child than a mother in Hong Kong.
This difference is far larger than that of infant mortality alone. There are many possible reasons for this, including factors which directly impact child mortality. Because of the number of factors involved, there are countries where the infant mortality rate remains stubbornly high but where maternal bereavement is rather low, such as the Philippines, and countries where a low mortality rate hides a high bereavement rate, such as Peru.
The differences between countries continue to exist when age is accounted for. While rates are worse everywhere when looking only at older mothers, the difference between Hong Kong, which remains the best, and Liberia, which becomes the worst, is still a factor of 70.
Cumulative prevalence of infant mortality for mothers age 45–49. Notice the similarities with the above map. (scale is per thousand) USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences
The mental and physical toll of losing a child
The authors of the study suggest that these numbers demonstrate the existence of a previously hidden element of global health and the inequality between nations. Their work shows that the maternal cumulative prevalence of infant mortality is not identical to the infant mortality rate, though it is related. They also warn that their estimates are probably conservative due to the likelihood of unreported infant deaths.
The toll of losing a child on a mother's mental and physical health is considerable. However, much of the research on this topic ignores the possible effects on other family members. The authors note that what information does exist suggests it can be equally as damaging to them. Additionally, they state that their research focused on national rates but that similar issues may exist within nations where demographic differences in infant mortality and parental bereavement rates exist. They encourage further study into this matter.
Dr. Smith-Greenaway explained the authors' hopes for the study and the new area of research it identifies:
"We hope that this work will emphasize that further efforts to lower child deaths will not only improve the quality and length of life for children across the globe, but will also fundamentally improve the lives of parents."