Five Words In and You’ve Decided

New research suggests our brains react almost instantaneously to statements that challenge our moral values.

As the recent footage of contentious town hall meetings reminds us, it is difficult to have a reasoned discussion about our political differences — particularly when the issues at stake touch upon our moral values. New research suggests that part of the problem is the way we process information in the brain.

According to a paper recently published in the journal Psychological Science, the brain takes a mere quarter of a second to react to statements that contradict or challenge our ethical belief system. That nearly instantaneous neural response colors the way the rest of the sentence — and thus, the rest of the thought — is interpreted.

The research suggests that if you feel abortion is repugnant, reading the statement "I think abortion is appropriate in some cases because it means fewer unwanted, unloved children" is a two-stage process. The phrase "I think abortion is appropriate" sets off neural alarm bells in the brain, which may cause you to read the rest of the sentence — which contains the reasons behind the belief — with an attitude of skepticism or hostility.

"The first word indicating that a statement clashes with the reader's value system elicits a very rapid and characteristic neural response," the researchers write. They add that "strong disagreement rapidly influences the ongoing analysis of meaning."

The research team, led by psychologist Jos J.A. Van Berkum of the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in Amsterdam, examined the brain function of two groups of people: Twenty-one members of "a relatively strict Christian party" and 22 self-described non-religious voters.

Working from party platforms, the researchers created a series of 158 statements members of the two groups would be expected to disagree over.

Statements included: "I think euthanasia is an acceptable course of action," "I think the increasing emancipation of women is a positive development," and "If my child were homosexual, I'd find this hard to accept." Participants indicated their agreement or disagreement with each statement on a four-point scale.

As the study participants read the statements, their brain activity was monitored using an electroencephalograph. The researchers found that statements conflicting with the individual participant's moral values increased the amplitude of two types of brain waves: one known as LPP, or late positive potential, and another called the N400 component.

The LPP "is elicited by stimuli with emotional content," while the N400 "reflects neural processes involved in relating the meaning of a word to its context." The latter result "suggests that people briefly experience difficulty making sense of an unfolding statement that strongly clashes with their personal values."

The research has its limitations, including the fact that all the study participants were men. But it provides evidence that our unconscious reaction to statements challenging our beliefs occurs literally in milliseconds. So if you're trying to influence someone's opinion on a moral-values issue, it might be more effective to start with neutral language and build up to the morally controversial conclusion.

People will always disagree, but a sentence structured in such a way to avoid an instantaneous negative response, such as, "Since we don't want to add to the already too-large number of unwanted children, I think abortion is appropriate," might be a better starting point for a discussion.

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