In such a diverse world, it is normal to have different opinions. The strange and worrying thing would be that we all think the same. Differences are often the driving force behind change. They help us understand perspectives and ways of facing life different from ours, whether in the most banal or the most momentous matters.
However, discussing an issue with different opinions can quickly turn into an all-out war. Mercilessly. Without logic. The confrontation of different opinions continues being one of our weak points.
How does our brain react to different opinions?
When two people talk about a controversial issue, they may agree or adopt different opinions. In both cases are activated different brain areas, both when we listen and when we speak. That explains, at least in part, why it can sometimes be so difficult to argue different opinions and come to an agreement.
Researchers from the Yale School of Medicine found that our brain closes itself to reasons when we disagree with the opinion of our interlocutor. They also appreciated that the confrontation of different opinions forces our brain to work hard.
Approximately 40 people participated in the experiment, selected on the basis of their deeply held beliefs on potentially contentious issues, such as the legalization of soft drugs or the recognition as a civil right of same-sex marriage.
Pairs were then created so that people could freely discuss while neuroscientists monitored their brain activity. Thus they checked the activation of the different brain areas when people agreed on a point and when they disagreed.
Neuroscientists appreciated that when people agreed on an issue, some sensory areas of the brain were activated, such as the visual, and other areas responsible for the articulated functions of thinking. However, the most curious thing is that there is a kind of cerebral synchronization between the two interlocutors. Their brains work in tune.
However, when people have different opinions, things become more complex. There are “jumps” in the brain coupling and each interlocutor is forced to mobilize more cognitive and emotional resources. “In particular, the cognitive processes found in the frontal lobe of the brain work more to disagree than to agree”, the researchers noted. The large amount of cognitive resources that we must mobilize to discuss, ends up consuming a great amount of energy and breaks our mental balance. This explains why we often feel frustrated and exhausted after an argument.⚫
You can also see a greater activation of the areas related to speech while reducing those related to listening. This explains why it is so difficult to reach an agreement when we have different opinions: we close ourselves off from each other’s arguments. We try to be right at all costs and we look for arguments to support our point of view while ignoring the opposite position.
I am right, you are wrong: Why is it so difficult for us to accept different ideas?
Every thought, repeated for a time, becomes part of our mental program. This mental program is made up of opinions, beliefs, judgments and stere⚫otypes that we later integrate into our identity. Thus we begin to identify with them.
So we seek – consciously or unconsciously – situations and people that fit into our mental program, that share our ideas and beliefs, to reaffirm them and feel comfortable. If someone says something that does not fit into our mental program, we perceive it as a personal attack and feel the need to defend ourselves.
However, the goal of any opinion or belief is not to validate it but to continually test it. Unquestioned opinions end up becoming monolithic truths that ensnare us. When a belief dominates us, we come to think that everyone should think the same way.
However, having different opinions is completely normal. And we must not fall into the mistake of identifying completely what we are with what we think. We are much more than our thoughts. And, above all, we will be much more as our beliefs evolve.
We must understand that the intensity of rejection we feel when faced with ideas other than ours is proportional to the degree of attachment we have to our beliefs. In other words, the more we identify with a belief and the more we cling to it, considering it an absolute truth, the more rejection the contrary beliefs will provoke.
How to discuss different opinions in an assertive way?
When a different opinion causes us a feeling of internal rejection, we should ask ourselves if we are reacting to the idea itself or if it is our refusal to change and accept different points of view. Perhaps we discover that the problem is not the idea, but our rigidity to open ourselves to other positions and the little availability to dialogue or to change our beliefs.
It is also worth bearing in mind that accepting different opinions does not necessarily imply assuming them as your own or validating them. We can accept that others think differently and respect them without agreeing with their opinions. It is not always necessary to convince the other that we are right or to assume that our interlocutor has the truth.
Reacting with a defensive or aggressive attitude will only serve to break the bridges that lead to a constructive and developmental dialogue. Instead, it is important to listen and confront from an assertive stance. Listening to people with interest, even if they have an opinion different from ours, is the ultimate test of empathy, respect and assertiveness, the keys to avoid generating irreconcilable antagonism. Sometimes all the others need is to be listened to, valued, and understood.
Hirsch, J. et. Al. (2021) Interpersonal Agreement and Disagreement During Face-to-Face Dialogue: An fNIRS Investigation. Front. Hum. Neurosci.