According to a 2013 Yale study, when facts seem to contradict your political opinions, your brain will work so hard to protect your beliefs that you’ll do worse at maths. And surprisingly, the effect is stronger on people who are usually good at maths.
Photo by Chip Somodevilla / Getty
Yale researchers asked participants to solve maths problems about skin cream, and graded their ability. Then they swapped out the skin cream terms for gun-control terms. Liberal participants had a harder time confirming a result that seemed to support looser gun laws; conservatives had a harder time with the reverse. Those who did best on the skin cream question did worst when challenged on the gun law question.
This scary phenomenon could at least help us empathise with our political opponents, says blogger K. Thor Jensen:
For me, this is a terrifying conclusion. The fact that doing maths — a discipline in which there should be very little ambiguity – can be coloured by my emotions and values calls the whole structure of the rational universe into question. But it also helps me to understand people on the other side of the spectrum a little better.
This isn’t new mental behaviour; some scientists think that humans evolved reasoning not to logically analyse the world, but to win arguments. “Reasoning doesn’t have this function of helping us to get better beliefs and make better decisions,” Hugo Mercier told the New York Times. “It was a purely social phenomenon. It evolved to help us convince others and to be careful when others try to convince us.” So we’re lucky we can ever see past our brains to recognise facts in the first place.