We’ve all been there. You are in the middle of a heated disagreement when you lose respect for the opposing party.
Whether it is about the latest election or childcare, you feel like your considered arguments are not appreciated – perhaps even ignored.
But did you ever wonder what exactly is happening in the mind of the person on the other side?
In our experiment, we asked 21 pairs of volunteers to make financial decisions. In particular, they each had to assess the value of real estates and bet money on their assessments.
The more confident they were in their assessment, the more money they wagered.
Each volunteer lay in a brain imaging scanner while performing the task so we could record their brain activity.
The two scanners were separated by a glass wall, and the volunteers were able to see the assessments and bets of the other person on their screen.
When volunteers agreed on the price of the real estate, each of them became more confident in their assessment, and they bet more money on it.
That makes sense – if I agree with you then you feel more sure that you must be right. Each person’s brain activity also reflected the encoding of the confidence of their partner.
In particular, activity of a brain region called the posterior medial frontal cortex, which we know is involved in cognitive dissonance, tracked the confidence of the partner.
We found that the more confident one volunteer was, the more confident the partner became, and vice versa.
However – and this is the interesting part – when people disagreed, their brains became less sensitive to the strength of others’ opinions.
After disagreement, the posterior medial frontal cortex could no longer track the partner’s confidence.
Consequently, the opinion of the disagreeing partner had little impact on people’s conviction that they were correct, regardless of whether the disagreeing partner was very sure in their assessment or not at all.
It was not the case that the volunteers were not paying attention to their partner when they disagreed with them.
We know this because we tested our volunteers’ memory of their partners’ assessments and bets. Rather, it seems that contradictory opinions were more likely to be considered categorically wrong and therefore the strength of those opinions was unimportant.
A polarised society
We suspect that when disagreements are about heated topics such as politics, people will be even less likely to take note of the strength of contradictory opinions.
Our findings may shed light on some puzzling recent trends in society. For instance, over the last decade, climate scientists have expressed greater confidence that climate change is man-made.
Yet, a survey by the Pew research centre shows that the percentage of Republicans who believe this notion to be true has dropped over the same period of time.
While there are complex, multi-layered reasons for this specific trend, it may also be related to a bias in how the strength of other people’s opinions are encoded in our brain.
Our brains can reveal a lot about our behaviour.
The findings can also be extrapolated to political current events. Take the recent impeachment hearings against US president Donald Trump.
Our study suggests that whether a witness appears “calm, confident and in command of the facts” (as government official Bill Taylor was described when testifying during the hearings) or “unsteady and uncertain” (as the FBI chief Robert Muller was described when testifying about his special counsel investigation back in July) will matter little to those who already oppose impeachment when testimonies are unsupportive of the president. But they will affect the conviction of those who are in favour of impeachment.
So how can we increase our chances of being heard by members of an opposing group? Our study lends new support to a “tried and tested recipe” (as Queen Elizabeth II recently put it while addressing a country divided over Brexit) – finding the common ground.
The strength of a carefully reasoned opinion is less likely to be registered when launching into a disagreement with a sturdy pile of evidence describing why we are right and the other side is wrong. But if we start from common ground – that is the parts of the problem we agree on – we will avoid being categorised as a “disputer” from the very beginning, making it more likely that the strength of our arguments will matter.
Take for example the attempt to alter the conviction of parents who refuse to vaccinate their children because they falsely believe vaccines are linked to autism. It has been shown that presenting strong evidence refuting the link does little to change their minds.
Instead, focusing solely on the fact that vaccines protect children from potentially deadly disease – a statement that the parents can more easily agree with – can increase their intention to vaccinate their children by threefold.
So in the midst of that heated disagreement, try and remember that the key to change is often finding a shared belief or motive.
Funding: Tali Sharot receives funding from the Wellcome Trust
Andreas Kappes does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
What are Negative Emotions?
It’s important to distinguish between what an emotion is and what a feeling is. While the two are interconnected, there’s a bigger difference than you may realize. It’s definitely something that surprised me when I began with my research.
Emotions – Emotions are regarded as ‘lower level’ responses. They first occur in the subcortical areas of the brain such as the amygdala and the ventromedial prefrontal cortices. These areas are responsible for producing biochemical reactions that have a direct impact on your physical state.
Emotions are coded into our DNA and are thought to have developed as a way to help us respond quickly to different environmental threats, much like our ‘fight or flight’ response. The amygdala has also been shown to play a role in the release of neurotransmitters that are essential for memory, which is why emotional memories are often stronger and easier to recall.
Emotions have a stronger physical grounding than feelings meaning researchers find them easier to measure objectively through physical cues such as blood flow, heart rate, brain activity, facial expressions, and body language.
Feelings – Emotions are seen as preceding feelings, which tend to be our reactions to the different emotions we experience. Where emotions can have a more generalized experience across all humans, feelings are more subjective and are influenced by our personal experiences and interpretations of our world based on those experiences.
Feelings occur in the neocortical regions of the brain and are the next step in how we respond to our emotions as an individual. Because they are so subjective, they can’t be measured the way emotions can.
Psychologists have long explored the range of human emotions and their definitions. Eckman (1999) identified six initial basic emotions:
He later expanded on this to include a further eleven basic emotions:
- Sensory Pleasure
Pam (2013) defines negative emotions “as an unpleasant or unhappy emotion which is evoked in individuals to express a negative effect towards an event or person.” Reading through the list of Eckman’s basic emotions, it’s quite easy to determine those that might be referred to as ‘negative’ emotions.
While we can use the label negative, with what we know about emotions, it’s important to acknowledge that all emotions are completely normal to experience. They are a part of our ingrained DNA. What is more important, is understanding when and why negative emotions might arise, and developing positive behaviors to address them.
A Look at the Psychology of Emotions
One of the more popular psychological theories of emotions is Robert Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotions. Plutchik (1980) stated that there are eight basic emotions: joy, trust, fear, surprise, sadness, anticipation, anger and disgust. Plutchik went further by pairing the emotions with their opposites and then creating the wheel of emotions, which serves to elaborate on how complex and interactive our emotions are.
As mentioned, Plutchik paired the basic emotions with their polar opposites to help further develop his theory, so:
- Sadness is the opposite of Joy
- Anticipation is the opposite of Surprise
- Anger is the opposite of Fear
- Disgust is the opposite of Trust
Plutchik’s wheel is a strong visual representation of how our emotions present themselves. As you can see the core emotion decreases as you move outward on the wheel. Plutchik also used color to represent the intensity of the emotion: the darker the color, the more intense it is. So at its most intense trust becomes admiration, and at its least intense, acceptance.
It’s a fantastic starting resource for helping us further develop our understanding of how our emotions present themselves, how they fluctuate and how they can interact with each other. It has informed further psychological research in this area and is often the foundation from which researchers exploring emotions have based their research (Eckman, 1999, Parrott, 2001, Lazarus & Lazarus, 1996).
Shaver et al (1987) and later Parrott (2001) proposed a ‘tree’ of emotions which broke emotions into primary, secondary and tertiary dimensions. This includes 6 primary emotions (love, joy, surprise, anger, sadness, and fear), with associated emotions that develop at the secondary level, and again at the tertiary level. For example, if the primary emotion is joy, the secondary emotions could include cheerfulness, optimism or enthrallment and the tertiary level could include pleasure, triumph or hope.
Cambria, Livingstone, and Hussain (2011) took Plutchik’s wheel to another level and developed ‘The Hourglass of Emotions’. In their book, they built on Plutchik’s eight basic emotions and broke them down into four dimensions: sensitivity, attention, pleasantness, and aptitude. They also made distinctions between which of the emotions were positive (joy, trust, anger, and anticipation) or negative (disgust, sadness, fear, and surprise).
Research and Studies
The more research has tried to understand our emotions, the more that’s come to light around the distinction between positive and negative emotions, and the impact of each on not only our mental wellbeing but our physical wellbeing too.
Below I’ve collated a few summaries of the studies I found while researching this topic that will hopefully give you a bit more insight into our current understanding of negative emotions:
- Schwarz and Clore (1996) developed a theory of ‘feelings-as-information’ which conceptualized the role of our emotions in how we make judgments about our environment. They theorized that our emotions provide us with feedback on the safety of our environment and our capacity to handle given situations. In this respect, negative emotions provide us with the strongest indication that something is not right, or that our safety might be compromised.
- Anxiety is often seen as a negative emotion, but it’s a necessary one to spur us to action. We often find it difficult to respond to situations without the presence of this emotion but it’s important to keep it in check as prolonged anxiety can impair our cognitive functioning (Rosen, 2008).
- Adler, Rosen, and Silverstein (1998) explored the impact of negative emotions in the role of negotiation. Focusing on two negative emotions – fear and anger – they found that negotiators who couldn’t control or understand these emotions when they arose were often unable to mediate the situation effectively, despite their training. Similar research has explored the ways different emotions, such as anger and gratitude, impact cognition and behavior within the context of mediation (Williams and Hinshaw, 2018).
- Biswas-Diener and Kashdan (2014) wrote an entire book on the positive motivation that negative emotions can move us towards. They see negative emotions as motivators to help us address and correct behavior and take action.
- Negative emotions have also been studied in cultural contexts. Rozin et al. (1999) explored feelings of contempt, anger and disgust, and their impact within American and Japanese communities on moral codes such as community, autonomy, and divinity.
- Appraisal Theory has also taken a look at negative emotions – specifically anger. Studies have found that people feel angry when they view an event or situation as personally relevant to them, inconsistent with what they are trying to achieve and when this is caused intentionally by another person. Appraisal theorists emphasize the role of perception of potential threats (Lazarus, 1991, Roseman, 1991, and Smith and Elsworth, 1985).
Tali Sharot and Andreas Kappes – The Conversation
Original Research: Closed access
“Confirmation bias in the utilization of others’ opinion strength”. Tali Sharot et al.
Nature Neuroscience doi:10.1038/s41593-019-0549-2.