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To Change Attitudes, Don’t Argue — Agree, Extremely

By Julia Rosen, Los Angeles Times

What if the best way to change minds isn’t to tell people why they’re wrong, but to tell them why they’re right? Scientists tried this recently and discovered that agreeing with people can be a surprisingly powerful way to shake up strongly held beliefs.

Researchers found that showing people extreme versions of ideas that confirmed — not contradicted — their opinions on a deeply divisive issue actually caused them to reconsider their stance and become more receptive to other points of view. The scientists attribute this to the fact that the new information caused people to see their views as irrational or absurd, according to a study published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“We truly believe that in most intractable conflicts, the real problems are not the real issues,” said Eran Halperin, a psychologist at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya in Israel and an author of the study. In reality, he said, both sides know what needs to be done; however, there are many “psychological barriers that prevent societies from identifying opportunities for peace.”

To see if tightly held attitudes could be pried loose, the scientists looked to one of the most polarizing issues on the planet, the decades-old conflict between Israelis and Palestinians that flared again violently last week. People on both sides hold strong beliefs that make compromise difficult, as years of failed negotiations have proved.

The scientists, led by Halperin’s graduate students Boaz Hameiri and Roni Porat, recruited more than 150 Israelis and exposed half of them to video clips that related the conflict with Palestinians back to values that many Israelis hold dear. The other half watched neutral TV commercials and served as a control.

But instead of pointing out how the conflict stood at odds with Israeli values — a common approach in persuasion — the experimental videos illustrated how the conflict was consistent with many participants’ beliefs, taken to their extreme limit.

“For example, the fact that they are the most moral society in the world is one of the most basic beliefs of Israeli society,” Halperin said. So when the researchers showed participants a video that claimed Israel should continue the conflict so that its citizens could continue to feel moral, people reacted angrily.

“You take people’s most basic beliefs and turn them into something that is absurd,” Halperin said. “For an outsider, it can sound like a joke, but for them, you are playing with their most fundamental belief.”

Although participants did not enjoy watching the clips, after numerous rounds of exposure over a period of months leading up to the 2013 Israeli elections, participants’ attitudes softened considerably; they reported almost a 30 percent increase in their willingness to re-evaluate their position compared with participants in the control group and took a more neutral stance on common political narratives like the idea that Palestinians bear responsibility for continuing the conflict. This shift persisted even a year after the study concluded.

In addition, when the election rolled around, more people exposed to the so-called paradoxical thinking experiment reported voting for moderate parties — those that favor conciliatory measures like evacuating some Israeli settlements in the West Bank — suggesting the intervention led not just to changed attitudes, but also to changed behavior.

Traditional approaches for dislodging strongly held attitudes have proved stubbornly ineffective; numerous studies have shown that confronting people with information that challenges their beliefs often has no effect at all, or even strengthens their initial position.

But in this study paradoxical thinking seemed to encourage some people to privately re-evaluate their strongly held beliefs or political narratives, authors said. It may succeed precisely because it sneaks through the psychological security system that protects our deepest beliefs from inconsistent information without tripping the alarm.

The scientists say the method needs further validation in the lab, and they noted several glaring issues that made applying it to real-world situations difficult.

For one, there was the “motivation problem”: How do you get people to watch videos they find disturbing? Outside of a lab setting, nothing would force people to sit through more than one or two clips, which probably wouldn’t produce the same effects found in the study, Halperin said.

There is also a risk of backfire — some people in the study took the videos at face value, assimilating the extreme messages into their personal beliefs. And, of course, nothing would stop governments or organizations from employing the same technique to promote their own agendas.

Photo: Templar1307 via Flickr

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When Brain Says Buy, You May Not Know Why

By Julia Rosen, Los Angeles Times

Billions of neurons fire in the brains of stock market traders as they decide whether to buy or sell shares in a matter of seconds. Some of these brain waves produce rational calculations about how best to make a profit, but others may not, suggests new research from the nascent field of neuroeconomics — a discipline that takes a physiological approach to understanding economic decision-making.

The new study shows that activity in a part of the brain associated with pleasure and reward flares to life during trading. The researchers say this may cause traders to buy too aggressively and ultimately drive stock market bubbles to inflate and burst.

Speculative bubbles have plagued economies for centuries; they occur any time prices soar far above the fundamental value of an asset. In the early 1600s, the Dutch pawned their heirlooms and sold their farms to buy contracts for tulip bulbs during an episode remembered as Tulip Mania. Many more followed, including the dot-com craze of the late 1990s and the U.S. housing bubble fueled by flimsy mortgage-backed securities that plunged the world into the worst recession since the Depression.

But economists and neurologists have long debated how and why speculative bubbles get started in the first place. At the root of the disagreement is the question of whether investors act rationally or irrationally during bubbles, and thus whether they constitute an inherent feature of financial markets.

As far back as 1988, researchers have found that bubbles emerge even in laboratory settings, when people trade in experimental markets without any uncertainty. One idea is that people simply get overly excited about rising prices — a phenomenon former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan called “irrational exuberance.”

“For whatever reason, if you put a bunch of people together and they start trading, these markets generate bubbles,” said Alec Smith, a neuroeconomist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena and lead author of the new study published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

That’s exactly what Smith, who spent seven years working as a professional stock trader, found in his latest experiment. He and his colleagues set up more than a dozen experimental markets that included about 20 college-age participants who traded for 50 rounds. (While college students are not professional traders, previous studies have found no difference in their behavior, Smith said.)

Each player started with 100 units of risk-free currency and six units of a hypothetical risky asset. There wasn’t much uncertainty in the market: Traders knew the interest rate of the currency, the expected dividends on the risky asset and its fundamental value.

In each market, two or three of the traders conducted their business from the inside of an MRI machine while the researchers watched their brains in action. By tracking the flow of blood to active areas of the brain in need of oxygen, the researchers found that a part of the brain called the nucleus accumbens lighted up during trading.

Set deep behind the eyes, the nucleus accumbens plays a central role in the brain’s reward circuit and helps regulate both motivation and addiction. It floods with dopamine when we get what we want, and it flares during arousal and drug use.

During the experiment, Smith and his colleagues found that activity in this powerful and not particularly rational part of the brain closely tracked rising stock prices. The more nucleus accumbens activity the scientists registered in the traders’ brains, the higher the prices rose.

Neural activity even predicted the imminence of a crash — when blood flow soared, prices reached perilous highs before tumbling back to the asset’s fundamental value.

However, not all traders showed the same brain patterns. One astute group — people who tended to sell earlier than the rest and thus earned the most during the experiments — showed activity in another part of the brain as the bubbles grew.

The anterior insula usually alerts people to physical discomfort, like a racing heartbeat or a feeling of fullness. But it has also been shown to respond to risk. In the small group of high-earning traders, the anterior insula sounded alarm bells that caused them to shed their risky assets before others.

AFP Photo / Spencer Platt

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