When Your Brain Sabotages Your Own Adaptability

Silvia Damiano
17 November 2021
2 min read

Some people become very passionate and irate when their beliefs are challenged, even if the challenger is polite and has evidence supporting their stance. Neuroscience has shown that our convictions become part of the brain, so much like we instinctively protect our physical self in times of danger, we also hold our beliefs dear.

When Others Don’t Agree With Our Point Of View

Are you able to challenge your own perspective on things, or do you tend to stick to one point of view? A study from the United States found that when guests are on different ends of the political spectrum, the duration of gatherings such as Thanksgiving dinner decreased. Researchers found politically diverse dinners were shorter than ones where most individuals shared the same political beliefs by 35-70 minutes.1

It seems we cannot even extend the olive branch to our closest family members and friends, so what if we behave this way as a leader? Why do we stubbornly hold on to something, even in the face of conflicting evidence? We tend to cling to the ‘old ways’ of doing things, even if there is something better out there. 

One study found increased activity occurred in the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex (associated with regulation of emotions) and decreased activity was seen in the orbitofrontal cortex (associated with cognitive flexibility) when people were shown information that challenged their political beliefs.2

Humans don’t like to have our viewpoints challenged, but leaders who can recognise and intentionally challenge their perspectives will be more agile and adaptable. 

In another study, scientists used functional MRI to peer into the brains of individuals when their personal beliefs were challenged. They found more activity in certain areas for more stubborn people.3 Increased activity was found in the insular cortex and the amygdala, both areas which are important for emotions and decision making. These people refused to use evidence to change their points of view, choosing instead to stick to the old beliefs. 

Scientists also saw increases in the default mode network when people were stubborn, which is more active when we are not focusing on any particular task or activity. This network is also active when we let our minds wander, when we think about ourselves and others and when we plan for the future. Our emotions become ingrained within our brains, which can influence how we consider information. Even when we are presented with real evidence, our minds may balk and refuse to accept it. 

Change will not come if we wait for some other person, or if we wait for some other time. We are the ones we've been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.

Barack Obama

Influential Leaders Are Not ‘Know-It-Alls’

We may blame our brains for our stubbornness, but these same marvellous organs also have an amazing capacity for change. Because of brain plasticity, we can rewire how we think.

Before we can make changes, though, we need to be aware of the problem. If we aren’t willing to admit our old beliefs are no longer valid, we cannot begin to accept new information. If we think we already know all the answers and solutions, we will be less agile and much less likely to listen to those around us. 

When we are unable to modify our thinking, we are not going to lead effectively. The world is rapidly changing around us, and if we do not keep up, we will be left behind. We need leaders who are ready to accept that the old ways may need to be continuously updated.

We need people who want to encourage adaptability. When push comes to shove, are you the kind of person who can adapt their beliefs, or are you stuck to one point of view?

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  1. Frimer JA, Skitka LJ. Are politically diverse Thanksgiving dinners shorter than politically uniform ones? PLoS One 2020; 15: e0239988.
  2. Howard J. This is why you get worked up about politics. CNN, 2017, https://www.cnn.com/2017/01/03/health/political-beliefs-brain/index.html (2017, accessed 19 January 2020).
  3. Gersema E. Which brain networks respond when someone sticks to a belief?, https://dornsife.usc.edu/news/stories/2513/which-brain-networks-respond-when-someone-sticks-to-a-belief/ (accessed 27 November 2020).

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Silvia Damiano

Silvia Damiano

Founder & CEO
About my Brain Institute

Scientist, educator, author, speaker, coach, award-winning leadership specialist, filmmaker and creator of the i4 Neuroleader Model & Methodology.

Silvia's scientific background and curiosity about the human brain led her to a decade long journey of research into optimal brain functioning and the application of neuroscience in leadership and daily life. Her past and current roles have uniquely prepared her for the current undertaking, that of leadership activist & change agent.

Silvia Damiano founded The About my Brain Institute in 2009, with the purpose of democratising leadership & neuroscience. She has a passionately held belief, that leaders in our 21st century global economy and their organisations must radically change long-held ideas of what constitutes effective leadership

In her ground-breaking books ‘Leadership is Upside Down’, ‘Brain-Friendly Leadership’ and the 2018 documentary ‘Make Me A Leader’, Silvia provides both compelling evidence and explores the importance of leadership in our personal and professional lives and what it takes to develop the human behind the leader.

Silvia has worked in different countries, across many industries, helping teams and organisations improve business performance. Silvia’s clients have described her as a passionate, dynamic, a highly experienced speaker and master facilitator on the topics of Emotional Intelligence, Cultural Change, Neuroleadership & Engagement.

Silvia is passionate about leaving a legacy of well-rounded leaders who can act and decide in a way that better serves humanity. Her clients include Microsoft, Australian Stock Exchange, NSW Government, VISA, Fuji Xerox and Manpower amongst many other global companies.

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