We've Found A Feature In The Brain That Makes People Rebel

The blue and red areas of the brain may appear unconnected, but the more synchronized activity in these two regions is, the more likely people are to rebel. Sarah Rudorf

Why do some people resist directions they don't like while others meekly submit? The answers must be highly complex, reflecting a mix of social and innate factors. A study has teased out a few of these, creating a model predicting people's responses, albeit in a somewhat artificial environment. Most intriguingly, the authors found that the strength of connection between two parts of the brain is an important factor in determining whether people resent directions.

The control aversion task is an existing behavioral economics test. Participants are paired with strangers, known as Player A, and instructed to divide money between them. Player A can either let the participant choose how to divide the money freely or demand a minimum share.

Dr Sarah Rudorf of the University of Bern and colleagues gave 51 university students instructions from 16 Player As, and measured their brain activity with fMRI machines while observing their reactions. Participants were subsequently asked to describe their thoughts and motivations.

Some findings reported in the Journal of Neuroscience were predictable. Participants who felt the Player As distrusted them, or could not understand their motivations, responded to instructions to share money by giving less and keeping more for themselves than when the decision was left entirely to them.

The neural observations, however, were much more interesting. The stronger the connection between the inferior parietal lobule and the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex in the brain, the more the amount shared varied when the participants were acting against instruction. Although the names of the regions may mean nothing to non-neuroscientists, the biological association with an important aspect of our personality is what matters.

Of course, whether it is best to take directions or resist depends very much on the nature of the instructions. The authors describe their study as a test of when people resist for the sake of resisting, rather than for good reasons. They use people who refuse to take medical advice and teenage rebellion as examples of real-world control aversion.

Perhaps, they suggest, if we knew how control-averse an individual was, we could better tailor efforts to get them to vaccinate their children or act in other beneficial ways. One wonders, however, if it might be difficult to get a control-averse person to sit still long enough to have their brain connections scanned.

Moreover, some might question the paper's emphasis on seeing control aversion as purely negative, leading to what the authors call “suboptimal decisions”. Perhaps, in a world where all too often we are instructed to act in ways that benefit neither ourselves nor society, there are positives to having a well-connected brain that resists being dictated to. But is it a good thing if governments now have a way to find society's rebels?

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