Thursday 22 August 2019

Brain biology may explain why we value views of confident people, says study

Scientists say the brain is geared to make us value the views of individuals with strong self-belief, which may help explain how Donald Trump won so many votes
Scientists say the brain is geared to make us value the views of individuals with strong self-belief, which may help explain how Donald Trump won so many votes

Charismatic political, religious and cult leaders may owe their power and influence to brain biology, new research suggests.

The human brain is geared to make us value the opinions of confident individuals with a strong belief in themselves, scientists have found.

It may help explain how the supremely confident Donald Trump was able to win over so many voters in the US presidential election.

Researchers scanned the brains of 23 healthy volunteers to uncover the chief influences of people's expectations of success.

They identified three key elements - personal experience, learning what the majority believe, and, most importantly, learning what confident people believe.

The first two factors had widespread effects on the brain's reward system, which generates a feeling of satisfaction when certain choices are made.

But opinions of confident people had an additional impact on the reward system, and only in a part of the brain that appeared late in human evolution.

Lead scientist Dr Daniel Campbell-Meiklejohn, from the University of Sussex, said: "This additional effect seems likely to be the mechanism by which the confidence of others can give us reassurance in our actions.

"Our findings suggest that social transmission of beliefs and preferences is not as straightforward as copying the person next to you. Other elements are clearly at play during the decision-making process."

The brain region affected was next door to another area that helps us consider what others are thinking, said the researchers whose findings are reported in the Journal of Neuroscience.

This was important for the next step in the research, which would focus on what the brain is actually doing when we observe confident people.

Dr Campbell-Meiklejohn added: "We can now consider that this part of the brain may be inferring, correctly or incorrectly, the quality of the confident person's information before deciding whether or not to that person change our beliefs.

"In today's political climate in particular, we should be aware that when facts aren't clear, we may be biologically tuned to allow seemingly confident people to hold more sway on our own beliefs."

PA Media

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