Trump supporters’ brains prevent them from changing their minds: neuroscientist

As the 2024 election inches closer, the choice we Americans are about to make could have dire national and global consequences. Both sides of the aisle are gearing up for what promises to be one of the most divisive electoral battles in history. With stakes higher than ever, the mission for progressives is clear: stop Trump at all costs.

As it stands now, polls have Trump and Biden effectively tied, meaning that there’s an opportunity, some might call it a moral imperative, to sway the country away from the dystopian future in which Trump triumphs.

But how exactly do we change voters’ minds?

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One might believe it’s just a matter of making a persuasive argument, loaded with empirical facts and sound logic, articulated with perfect clarity. This is what the left-wing media often believes, and we have seen how successful that strategy has been — Donald Trump is as influential as ever.

But what if I told you that our neural wiring determines whether we have the ability to change our minds? What if I told you that science suggests conservatives, who are extremely likely to be voting for Trump this election, generally have more rigid cognitive systems, which means they are less adaptable, and therefore, less likely to adopt a new framework or perspective when their approach fails?

A seminal study by social psychologist David Amodio and colleagues at New York University suggests that the typical conservative is not likely to be convinced by something as simple as a logically persuasive argument. For some conservatives, it’s like asking them to change the color of their eyes. A progressive worldview cannot pierce their psyche because being dogmatic is programmed into the fabric of that worldview. It is not just that they are “stubborn”; their brains are actually wired to resist things that are new and different. So, you could say they lack “free will” when it comes to their voting decision. When we speak of free will in a modern sense, we are talking about the personal agency that enables one to override ingrained biases and consider alternative perspectives.

To understand the implications of this study, we must voyage into the realm of neuroscience, where secrets of the mind await discovery. The ERN, which stands for “error related negativity,” is a spike in brain activity that is triggered when we commit an error. It serves as a kind of internal alert system within our brain, signaling when a mistake has been made. It emerges in the brain region known as the anterior cingulate cortex, which helps us navigate situations where established patterns or behaviors are ineffective and require adjustment. For example, if a person is learning to play a musical instrument and hits a wrong note, the ERN might spike, prompting them to correct their finger positioning and playing style. Over time, as they practice and adapt, the frequency of these ERN spikes will decrease, indicating improved proficiency and fewer mistakes.

RELATED: This complete psychological analysis reveals 14 key traits that explain Trump supporters

Armed with a knowledge of the nature of the ERN, Dr. Amodio and colleagues ventured into the terrain of politics. Their highly-cited 2007 study revealed an illuminating connection between one’s political orientation and the intensity of the ERN response. What they found was that participants with liberal views exhibited a more pronounced ERN. This suggests they have a heightened sensitivity to error signals, indicating a cognitive system that acknowledges the need for adjustments in perspective and strategy. Essentially, when their established behavioral patterns were shown to be incorrect or suboptimal, their brains signaled more intensely for an adaptive response. From these findings, we can conclude that progressive-minded individuals possess a neural predisposition for recognizing the need for change and growth.

Conservatives, on the other hand, exhibited a smaller ERN. This suggests that their cognitive system is more resistant to signals advocating for change or reconsideration. We can think of this as a neural reflection of their preference for stability, tradition and consistency. The typical conservative voter’s mental landscape, sculpted by a combination of genetics and indoctrinating experiences, values the familiar and reliable. Established norms and long-held beliefs provide a safe harbor in the face of a changing society and an uncertain future. It’s a mindset where radical shifts or sudden upheavals are perceived not as opportunities but threats to a delicate equilibrium. Conservatism is essentially a neurocognitive inclination aimed at preserving the status quo.

So, what are we supposed to take away from these results? Does it mean there’s no hope for shifting anyone’s stances this election?

One might reasonably conclude that we should simply focus on getting all those already on our ideological side to turn out to the polls on voting day.

But using that strategy alone is risky. We should not give up hope in spreading a progressive worldview, because resistance to change and evolution eventually leads to societal collapse. History has unequivocally demonstrated that. Adaptivity is the key to individual and collective survival. This means we have an ethical obligation to be evangelists for progress and sensible change. This will require a bit of social engineering and some creativity.

Persuading the conservatives intending to vote for Trump is not about convincing them with logic; it is about understanding and navigating their innate preference for stability and tradition. By recognizing the inherent gravitation toward consistency, we see that the presentation of facts or data might not be the most persuasive tool. Effective persuasion demands an approach that’s strategically empathetic. Rather than challenging the core of their beliefs head-on, it’s far more effective to frame arguments in a way that resonates with their intrinsic values — stability, tradition and consistency. Narratives and stories that weave in those facts that resonate with their core values will be more compelling. Presenting change not as a rupture, but as a natural evolution of the existing order, can be a more palatable and effective narrative.

To truly sway Republican voters, we must employ more than just arguments. It demands a properly balanced mix of genuine empathy, clever communication strategy and a basic grasp of the neurocognitive biases shaping their perspectives.

In the end, the outcome of the election may well hinge on our ability to navigate the cognitive labyrinth of the conservative mind.

RELATED: ‘The Da Vinci Code’ shows why it’s so hard to deprogram Trump’s followers: linguist

Bobby Azarian is a cognitive neuroscientist and the author of the book The Romance of Reality: How the Universe Organizes Itself to Create Life, Consciousness, and Cosmic Complexity. He is also a blogger for Psychology Today and the creator of the Substack Road to Omega. Follow him on X and Instagram @BobbyAzarian.

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