Do We Pay a Price for Disagreeing?

Do We Pay a Price for Disagreeing?

By Jim Windell

            If you have had arguments lately over politics or religion, you know that these kinds of discussions are frustrating and, occasionally, quite exasperating. How do you convince someone who is set in their beliefs to look at your side of things? Coming up with a strategy in the midst of a debate takes energy and brain power.

            The opposite is true when we are talking with someone who shares our opinions and with whom we have an harmonious point of view. We can walk away from such a discussion with a sense of well-being. And it might even increase our sense of rightness about the world.

            A new study has tried to explore this to learn more about the brain during harmonious conversations and disagreements. As might be predicted, having a friendly, agreeable conversation is less taxing on our brain than those discussions that end in an argument.

           So says a study reported in the journal Frontiers of Human Neuroscience.

           Researchers from Yale and the University College London recruited 38 adults who were asked to say whether they agreed or disagreed with a series of statements such as "same-sex marriage is a civil right" or "marijuana should be legalized." After matching up pairs based on their responses, the researchers used an imaging technology called functional near-infrared spectroscopy to record their brain activity while they engaged in face-to-face discussions.

           When the people in the study were in agreement, brain activity was harmonious and tended to be concentrated on sensory areas of the brain such as the visual system, presumably in response to social cues from their partner. However, when there were disputes, these areas of the brain were less active. On the other hand, activity increased in the brain's frontal lobes, home of higher order executive functions. In other words, when people disagree, many regions of the brain involved in higher cognitive functions become mobilized as each individual combats the other's argument.

           "Our entire brain is a social processing network," said senior author Joy Hirsch, the Elizabeth Mears and House Jameson Professor of Psychiatry and professor of comparative medicine and neuroscience. "However, it just takes a lot more brain real estate to disagree than to agree. There is a synchronicity between the brains when we agree," Hirsch said. "But when we disagree, the neural coupling disconnects."

           So, the next time you are engaged in a polarized political argument, you might bow out more gracefully by saying you ending the discussion because your higher cortical functions are just tired and need a rest.

           To read the journal article, find it at:

Joy Hirsch, Mark Tiede, Xian Zhang, J. Adam Noah, Alexandre Salama-Manteau, & Maurice Biriotti. Interpersonal Agreement and Disagreement During Face-to-Face Dialogue: An fNIRS Investigation. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 2021; 14 DOI: 10.3389/fnhum.2020.606397

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