When you rationalize driving your SUV with the world growing ever warmer or smoking with the threat of lung cancer looming, a distinct area in the middle of the frontal lobes of your brain allows you to adjust your attitudes to justify your behavior, research conducted at UC Davis has found.
In a study published in the journal Nature Neuroscience, UC Davis researchers report that a portion of the brain that sits on top and in front of the connection of the brain’s two hemispheres is the place where we wrestle with our inner conflicts. The place is called the anterior cingulate cortex. Psychologists call the process cognitive dissonance.
“Psychologists have studied cognitive dissonance for decades and this research has had many applications from marketing to politics, but we have never known exactly how it works before,” said senior study author Cameron Carter, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and director of the UC Davis Imaging Research Center.
For the study, research subjects were placed inside an MRI and asked questions that would create cognitive dissonance while scientists obtained fMRI images that detected minute increases in blood flow to activated areas of the brain. The subjects were asked to answer questions about the MRI experience but give answers that minimized their discomfort at being inside the cramped, claustrophobic machine. They were asked to prevaricate because other, waiting subjects were watching. The researchers also obtained fMRI images of control subjects who were not asked to minimize their discomfort for the benefit of other participants.
The study found that two distinct areas of the brain showed activity in the prevaricating subjects that did not become active in the study controls. The areas were the anterior cingulate cortex and, to a slightly lesser extent, the anterior insula. The anterior cingulate cortex is thought to be a strictly cognitive area, while the insula is considered to be a region that processes more emotions. Both have previously been shown to be active during various kinds of psychological conflicts, and in this case they were engaged by the conflict between the stated beliefs and the participants’ true feelings. Strikingly, the more these areas were activated by the conflict between real and stated attitudes, the more the person later changed their attitude outside of the scanner and experienced it as more pleasant.
The study advances brain science and our understanding of how attitudes change and begin to provide insights into how attitudes get manipulated by marketers or politicians, said van Veen, who is now a post-doctoral fellow at the Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute at UC Berkeley. It may also help us advance why some people are more susceptible to induced attitude change than others, noted Carter.
“The study contributes a lot to our knowledge about cognitive dissonance, and how and why people change their attitudes,” van Veen said. “It shows that the phenomenon of cognitive dissonance is real and is not just a figment of the imagination of social psychologists — there really is something going on in people’s brains when they make an argument that goes counter to what they actually think. Furthermore, it shows that the degree to which people’s opinions are subsequently changed depends on how active their anterior cingulate cortex was making a new link between the known cognitive functions of this region and the processes of changing people’s attitudes.”
Other study authors include Marie K. Krug of UC Davis and Jonathan W. Schooler of UC Santa Barbara.
The study was funded by the National Institute of Mental Health and the Burroughs-Wellcome Foundation.