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Our brains are "programmed" to learn from people we like

In the fascinating realm of cognitive neuroscience, recent research has uncovered that our brains are more adept at learning from individuals we favor and less so from those we do not.

This discovery, spearheaded by researchers at Lund University, highlights the intricate relationship between personal biases and the efficiency of memory integration — a process crucial for our ability to learn and adapt.

The mechanics of memory integration

Memory plays a pivotal role in our lives, not just by preserving past experiences but also by enabling us to connect these experiences in novel ways.

This capability, known as memory integration, is what allows for flexible and rapid learning, facilitating our understanding of concepts and scenarios beyond our direct encounters.

Inês Bramão, an associate professor of psychology at Lund University, illustrates this with a simple yet telling example: witnessing a dog first with a man in a park and later with a woman in the city might lead one to infer a relationship between the two humans, despite no direct evidence of their connection.

However, as Bramão points out, “Making such inferences is adaptive and helpful. But of course, there’s a risk that our brain draws incorrect conclusions or remembers selectively.”

This statement underscores the dual-edged nature of memory integration, where the potential for misinterpretation or selective recall exists alongside its benefits.

How likeability affects our brains’ learning process

Delving deeper into the mechanics of memory integration, Bramão, alongside colleagues Marius Boeltzig and Mikael Johansson, embarked on a series of experiments.

Participants were asked to remember and link various objects — ranging from everyday items like bowls and scissors.

The researchers discovered that the ease with which these connections were made depended significantly on the presenter’s likability.

Information delivered by a favored individual was assimilated more smoothly than that from a disliked source.

Participants’ preferences were defined across a spectrum of criteria, including political views, lifestyle choices, and personal interests, highlighting the subjective nature of likability.

This subjective evaluation of information sources has profound implications, particularly in realms such as politics.

Politics and perception: A case study in cognitive bias

Bramão illustrates this with a hypothetical scenario where the perception of healthcare improvements is influenced by one’s political affiliations, demonstrating how biases can shape our understanding and attribution of causality.

Bramão posited, “A political party argues for raising taxes to benefit healthcare. Later, you visit a healthcare center and notice improvements have been made. If you sympathize with the party that wanted to improve healthcare through higher taxes, you’re likely to attribute the improvements to the tax increase, even though the improvements might have had a completely different cause”.

Understanding polarization: Cognitive roots of resistance

This research sheds light on the broader implications of how source preference affects learning and belief formation, contributing to phenomena such as polarization and resistance to new information.

Mikael Johansson, a professor of psychology at Lund University, emphasizes, “What our research shows is how these significant phenomena can partly be traced back to fundamental principles that govern how our memory works.”

By understanding that our inclination to form new connections and update our knowledge is significantly influenced by the source of information, particularly those aligned with our existing beliefs, we gain insight into the roots of polarized viewpoints.

This understanding transcends the concept of social media filter bubbles, pointing to a more intrinsic, psychological basis for information assimilation biases.

Johansson further notes the remarkable aspect of our information integration processes.

“Particularly striking is that we integrate information differently depending on who is saying something, even when the information is completely neutral. In real life, where information often triggers stronger reactions, these effects could be even more prominent.”

Rethinking the brain and learning bias

This observation suggests that the effects observed in controlled experiments could be even more pronounced in real-life situations, where information often elicits stronger emotional responses.

Through their research, the team at Lund University offers a compelling examination of the foundational principles of memory and learning, highlighting the profound influence of personal biases on our capacity to integrate new information.

This insight advances our understanding of cognitive processes and provides a critical perspective on the challenges of addressing polarization and knowledge resistance in society.

The full study was published in the journal Communications Psychology.


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