Your Political Beliefs Make You Bad at Math

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According to a 2013 Yale study, when facts seem to contradict your political opinions, your brain will work so hard to protect your beliefs that you’ll do worse at math. And surprisingly, the effect is stronger on people who are usually good at math.

Yale researchers asked participants to solve math problems about skin cream, and graded their ability. Then they swapped out the skin cream terms for gun-control terms. Liberal participants had a harder time confirming a result that seemed to support looser gun laws; conservatives had a harder time with the reverse. Those who did best on the skin cream question did worst when challenged on the gun law question.

This scary phenomenon could at least help us empathize with our political opponents, says
blogger K. Thor Jensen:
 

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For me, this is a terrifying conclusion. The fact that doing math - a discipline in which there should be very little ambiguity - can be colored by my emotions and values calls the whole structure of the rational universe into question. But it also helps me to understand people on the other side of the spectrum a little better.

This isn’t new mental behavior; some scientists think that humans evolved reasoning not to logically analyze the world,
but to win arguments
. “Reasoning doesn’t have this function of helping us to get better beliefs and make better decisions,” Hugo Mercier told the
New York Times
. “It was a purely social phenomenon. It evolved to help us convince others and to be careful when others try to convince us.” So we’re lucky we can ever see past our brains to recognize facts in the first place.



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