Human beings form their beliefs about reality based on the constant torrent of information our brains receive through our senses. But some information is accepted and incorporated into our beliefs more easily than another one. More specifically, we’re all very eager to update our beliefs based on good news rather than on its bad counterpart. This widespread tendency to be disinclined to integrate negative information into our beliefs is known as the “good news/bad news effect”. Can we do something about that?
Well, a new study by Tali Sharot et al. has shown that this bias towards good news can be decreased through transcranial magnetic stimulation, which involves exposing certain brain regions to a magnetic field. The brain region subjected to stimulation here was the inferior frontal gyrus (or IFG), located in the frontal cortex. Or roughly above your eyes. The left and right side of this brain region were stimulated separately in different individuals, and then, the experiment started (including a control group in which a different brain region was stimulated).
The experiment went like this: participants were asked to estimate the likelihood of certain unpleasant events (how likely are you to be robbed, get cancer,…). After this, they received factual information about their chances to experience such event. Then, they were asked to reassess the possibility that they might undergo one of these life events.
The results show that participants in whom the control brain region, or the right IFG, was stimulated were clearly influenced by the good news/bad news effect. That is, they were much more likely to update their beliefs when they got good news (“you’re actually less likely to…”), compared to when they received bad news (“you’re more likely to…”). In contrast, people in whom the left IFG was stimulated no longer experienced the good news/bad news effect. They still updated their beliefs based on good news, but, importantly, also based on bad news.
So, thought brain stimulation we can eliminate the tendency to ignore bad news when altering our beliefs. But should we do this? The authors point out that underestimating our own chances of experiencing a bad event may have beneficial effects, such as increasing explorative behavior and reducing stress and anxiety, which contributes to our well-being. On the other hand, a reduced capacity of learning from bad news could come with a cost, such as ignoring warning signs (economic crisis, anyone?).
Seems like a case of good news/bad news, then.
Sharot, T, Kanai, R, Marstonc, D, Kornd, CW, Rees, G, & Dolanf, RJ (2012). Selectively altering belief formation in the human brain. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1205828109
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons, author: Eric Wasserman, M.D.; NIH.