Standing up for your beliefs when they run contrary to those of everyone around you sounds like a prescription for stress. It could at least leave you very uncomfortable. But new research suggests that not backing down might actually prove rewarding.
It all depends on your goals, says Mark Seery. He is a psychologist who studies how people deal with stress. He works at the University at Buffalo in New York.
The human body has two basic reactions to this type of conflict. Which reaction it calls on tends to depend on how someone views the conflict. Do they see it negatively — as a threat? Or might it be welcomed as an interesting challenge?
These reactions helped humans survive in the past, Seery suspects. Consider what might have happened when a person 3,000 years ago encountered an animal. If this was a hunter who had tracked down his quarry, he might have gotten excited — pleasantly — and tried to prepare to move in on the kill. But if this person detected a predator closing in, sweat-inducing fear might drive a move to flee.
In both cases, the hunter and the hunted would need lots of blood pumping into their leg muscles. Their hearts would also beat faster. In the one case, this would help the person chase down the village’s only chance of bringing home dinner. In the other, it might help him avoid becoming the predator’s dinner.
When the brain sees the stressful situation as a positive challenge, the body’s arteries expand. This lets more blood flow to all of its tissues. Stressful situations that the brain views as a threat lead to a very different response. Our arteries contract, reducing blood flow. This reaction also might have helped humans survive. If someone didn’t think he had a good chance of outrunning a predator, he might be better off staying very still. This way, the predator might not see him.
“It makes sense,” says Seery. “Less blood flow makes it easier for muscles to freeze. More blood primes us for movement and makes us jittery and unable to keep still.”
Seery and his team wanted to know how our bodies react in a more modern situation — when we stay true to our beliefs in the face of disagreement. Is this a positive challenge or a negative threat? They also wanted to know what happens when we are forced to agree with others, even though we have a very different opinion.
So the researchers conducted an experiment. They measured the heart beats and blood flow of people who were forced to speak up to a group that disagreed with them. The scientists suspected that the body would respond differently depending on a speaker’s attitudes about the nature of the challenge. And their tests tended to confirm that hypothesis. Seery’s group shared its findings August 2016 in Psychophysiology.
What the data showed
The researchers started their experiment by asking college students their opinion on this statement: “The government should provide health insurance to everyone, even if it means raising taxes.” Only those students who agreed with the statement were asked to continue on in the tests.
These students now were divided into two groups. Half were told to give a short speech that they thought would help them fit into a group of four other people who disagreed with the original statement. The other half were told to give a short speech that expressed their individual and core beliefs. In other words, they were told to be true to themselves.
To measure heart rate and blood flow, the researchers attached sensors to the students. These showed that heart rate sped up in both groups. But students forced to fit in with a group they disagreed with had constricted arteries. Their bodies responded as if they were facing a threat.
The arteries expanded in students told to express their individuality and core values. This showed they experienced the situation as a positive challenge.
So sticking up for our beliefs in the face of opposition can become a positive experience, Seery concludes. Meanwhile, going along with a group we disagree with can become a negative one.
“The most important thing our study shows is that this [kind of situation] doesn’t have to feel uncomfortable if you make expressing your individuality your goal,” says Seery.
Kimberly Rios agrees. She is a psychologist at Ohio University in Athens. She studies how people respond to threats to their self-concepts — in other words, to who they believe they are. She says that the new data show that “if you approach the situation with a goal to fit in with others, disagreement can make you experience physical feelings of discomfort.” But disagreeing with others on an important issue doesn’t have to be a threatening experience, she adds. The trick, she points out, is to “approach the situation with a goal to be yourself and express your own values.”