The brain treats questions about beliefs like physical threats. Can we learn to disarm it?
Street epistemologists are trying to give people 'the gift of doubt'
Anthony Magnabosco has an unusual interest that consumes all the time he can give to it. It’s not something he collects, nor is it something he makes. It’s something he tries to inspire in others: healthy skepticism. He calls himself a street epistemologist, and in a quest for truth, he’s trying to better his understanding of what people believe and why. "Epistemology" is a philosophically complicated subject, but it’s essentially the study of knowledge – what it is, and how it’s formed.
“I have a hobby where I chat for five minutes,” Magnabosco says. His conversations are spontaneous: people he meets while hiking, or at public universities in and around San Antonio, TX. “We select a belief that you form, that you’re sure is true, and I ask questions to see how you can be so sure.”
Magnabosco and other proponents of street epistemology claim it is a casual, ideally neutral method of questioning to determine how a person has come to accept a particular belief as true. Interestingly, science is shining a light on exactly what is happening in the brain when deeply held beliefs are challenged.
Accurate determination of what is biologically occurring when a person is examining their own beliefs could lead to a better understanding of how an idea might most effectively be challenged. In an information ecosystem that grows ever more politically siloed, such lines of study are worth pursuing.
Questions and self-defense
Jonas Kaplan is an assistant research professor of psychology at USC's Brain and Creativity Institute. He studies the human brain using fMRIs to observe how it responds to, among other stimuli, challenges to predisposed beliefs.
In a study that he and his research team published in Scientific Reports last year, they studied the scans of people undergoing simultaneous questioning, and demonstrated the physical effects that take place within the brain during periods when political beliefs were questioned.
The study uncovered a correlation: when a belief is directly challenged by new information, parts of the brain that typically show activity for physical threats expressed greater activity in people who tended to be more resistive to changing their minds.
“The brain can be thought of as a very sophisticated self-defense machine," Kaplan told me. "If there is a belief that the brain considers part of who we are, it turns on its self-defense mode to protect that belief.”
Kaplan argues that this demonstrates that the brain reacts to belief challenges in the same way that it reacts to perceived physical threats. This would help explain why minds are so resistant to change the beliefs that form one’s perception of reality.
'The gift of doubt'
In his 2013 book A Manual for Creating Atheists, philosopher Peter Boghossian of Portland State University advocates using the Socratic method to question a claim’s reliability. Boghossian told me via email that street epistemology "is a way to help people become more humble about what they think they know. It’s a method of giving the gift of doubt.”
In Magnabosco’s experience, the beliefs people choose to defend are quite varied: “I’ve talked to people about ghosts, voodoo, karma, a political issue; a lot of people pick God.”
Sometimes people choose not to engage, and there it ends. However, for many others, curiosity and the prospect of earnest inquiry gets the better of them, and they agree to a short discussion. He’s posted hundreds of these conversations on YouTube to demonstrate how perfect strangers can peaceably assess personal beliefs through conversation.
He usually begins a chat by establishing a self-reported confidence level from the interviewee (0-100) for any claim they believe to be true. Then, through intense listening, quiet pauses, and repetition to demonstrate an accurate grasp of their justifications, he begins to question the falsifiability of the claim, thus requiring the subject to account for their reasoning.
He isn’t conducting formal academic research of the effects of his conversations in preparation for official peer review. For now, it remains a hobby. His goal in recording these talks is to demonstrate to laypeople and researchers alike how effective Socratic questioning is in counteracting that ingrained human resistance to changing our minds – the hobby counterpart to Kaplan's work.
This is important work in the internet age when, according to the Pew Research Center, there exists not only deep (and widening) political divisions among Americans, but also evidence of ideological fractures among members within each political party. We need to be arming ourselves with the ability to think critically about information that we might otherwise consume without proper concern for who produced the content, and with what motive.
As for Magnabosco, the brain’s biological resistance to "attack" (i.e. changing personal beliefs) is no deterrent. Practicing street epistemology with members of his community has become a kind of “belief examination triage," as he puts it.
In one exchange exemplary of many others, the subject begins with total confidence of his reasoning in support of his theological positions. After discussing them for 10 minutes, Magnabosco sensed his subject had realized some flaws in his logical arguments, so he chose to end the chat to give the space to think it all over. He considers this to be a success.
Although he trudges through such discussions one interlocutor at a time – what he calls "placing pebbles in shoes" – Magnabosco does so with great enthusiasm (perhaps optimism?) of providing people with improved, effective skepticism.