Albert Einstein was one of the most important physicists of all time. His scientific predictions have withstood 100 years of scientific challenges. His thinking fundamentally changed the way we understand the universe. Yet people are more likely to be convinced Einstein wasn’t a great physicist than to change their minds on topics like immigration or the death penalty.
It has nothing to do with a person’s intelligence (or the quality of information on Einstein or immigration policy). It’s due to the fact that we’re simply more open to changing our minds on nonpolitical topics. Scientists have been keen to figure out why — because if they can, it may open the door to the hardest challenge in politics right now: changing minds.
Psychologists have been circling around a possible reason political beliefs are so stubborn: Partisan identities get tied up in our personal identities. Which would mean that an attack on our strongly held beliefs is an attack on the self. And the brain is built to protect the self.
But these results are an intriguing step: The brain processes politically charged information (or information about strongly held beliefs) differently (and perhaps with more emotion) than it processes more mundane facts. It can help explain why attempts to correct misinformation can backfire completely, leaving people more convinced of their convictions.
The results also jibe with some of Kaplan and Harris’s past work on religious beliefs. “When we compared evaluating religious statements to nonreligious statements, we [found] some of the same brain regions that are active in the current study,” Kaplan said. Which makes sense, because religious beliefs also factor into our identities.
What the new study definitely doesn’t show is that “political beliefs are hardwired,” Kaplan says. We can change our minds. Reflecting on his work and his own experience, 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.