In Reason We Trust

The Backfire Effect

You're not going to believe what I'm about to tell you

President Carrie Henson’s Comments at the February 6th, 2018 KPB Assembly Meeting adapted from an article by The Oatmeal…

I’m going to tell you some things. You’re not going to believe these things I tell you. And that is okay. You have good reason not to. But I need you to keep listening, regardless of what you believe. I don’t care if you are liberal, conservative, or somewhere in between. I don’t care if you are a cat person, a dog person, or a tarantula person. Morning person or night owl. Iphone or Android. Coke or Pepsi. I don’t care. All I care about is that you listen to the end.

You may have heard that George Washington had wooden teeth. He lost most of his teeth in his twenties and had a set of dentures made out of wood. It’s a disturbing visual, Except it isn’t true.

In 2005, at the National Museum of Dentistry in Baltimore, laser scans were performed on Washington’s two-hundred-year old dentures, and found them to be made of gold, lead, hippopotamus ivory, horse, and donkey teeth. His mouth was a petting zoo of nightmares.

Upon learning this information, I want to ask you something: how did it feel to learn this new fact about George Washington’s teeth? I stated a thing, I provided evidence of that thing, and presumably you now believe in the thing I stated. Presumably your belief in the composition of George Washington’s teeth has changed with little or no friction.

What if I told you George Washington had another set of false teeth? What if I told you this other set wasn’t made from wood, ivory, or any of the aforementioned materials? What if I told you it was made from the teeth of slaves?

Now, let’s try this again: How did it feel to learn this fact about George Washington? Any more of that friction I mentioned earlier? Before we go any further, allow me to reiterate: I am not here to convince you that George Washington was a bad person. I could go through all my cited sources and cherry-pick arguments that either deify or demonize George Washington. I could paint a portrait of a monster, or I could exonerate a patriot. But as I said before, I don’t care. It’s not the point.

The point is to give you an emotional barometer of how you feel when presented with new ideas. Because you may have noticed that the first fact about George Washington’s teeth was rather easy to accept. I would even wager that when I told you the first fact, you accepted it without question. But when I told you the second fact, you immediately wanted proof of my sources and are now furiously composing an informed-yet-incendiary retort in your head and may have quit listening to me entirely.

And that’s okay. That’s all part of it. Let’s try a few more. Napoleon Bonaparte was not short. He was 5’7, which was taller than the average Frenchman at the time. Houseflies live for about a month, not 24 hours. Humans don’t explode in a vacuum nor do we boil. We just pass out from lack of oxygen and then we die.

Again as you listen to these facts, take stock of how you feel. I’m guessing you softened to the last few fairly easily. Let’s try a few more.

There is zero evidence that Jesus Christ was born on December 25th. The Pledge of Allegiance was written by a socialist. Six of the seven justices who voted in favor of Roe v. Wade were Republican appointed. How did those last three feel? Depending on your beliefs, I’m guessing it may have put some of you pretty close to popping the top of that barometer. At the very least, you can concede that it felt different to hear those statements compared to the ones about Napoleon or houseflies.

Why do we easily soften to some ideas but not to others? Why do we gnash our teeth when presented with evidence counter to our beliefs? Why do we not only ignore the evidence, but dig our heels in deeper and believe more strongly in the opposing argument? Why would providing more evidence make someone less likely to believe in an idea? It seems backwards and kind of bonkers to me. Turns out bonkers has a name in the world of neuroscience. It’s called the backfire effect. And it’s a well-documented psychological behavior.

A few years ago at the university of Southern California’s Brain and Creativity Institute, a study was conducted where participants were placed into a MRI machine. Once inside, they were presented with counterarguments to strongly held political beliefs. As participants were read these counterarguments, various parts of their brains were scanned for activity. What the study revealed was that we react to threatening information the same way we’d react to being attacked by a predator.

Core beliefs are the beliefs which people cherish the most deeply. They usually develop from childhood and are compounded by life experiences. Core beliefs are inflexible, rigid, and incredibly sensitive to being challenged. When I told you that George Washington’s dentures were made from animal bones, it probably didn’t ruffle many feathers. But when I suggested they were made from slave teeth, I’m guessing it caused strife with some of you. There are obvious cultural reasons for this; slavery is a sensitive, hot-button issue. But there are biological reasons as well. Some of you may have held a worldview that George Washington was a patriot and a hero. By presenting negative information about him, it challenged that worldview. Your brain loves consistency. It builds a worldview like we build a house. It has a foundation and a frame and windows and doors and it knows exactly how everything fits together. If a new piece is introduced and it doesn’t fit, the whole house falls apart. Your brain protects you by rejecting that piece. It then builds a fence and a moat and refuses to let in any visitors. This is why we have the back fire effect. It’s a biological way of protecting our worldview.

So, what do we do about this? The disappointing truth is that I don’t have much advice for you. I don’t have a way to change the behavior of 7.5 billion people carrying their beliefs around like precious gems wrapped in hand grenades. This is compounded by the internet, where anything can be cited as a source and every disagreement degrades into a room full of orangutans throwing feces at one another. The best I can do is make you aware of it, so you can identify the backfire effect in your own brain. Which isn’t easy. The mind can’t separate the emotional cortex from the logical one. And one could argue that this emotional underbelly is what makes us human. But I would argue that it’s also what makes us animals.

I sometimes pretend this part of my brain is in my pinky toe. When a core belief is challenged, I imagine it yelling insane things at me. I let it yell. I let it have its moment. I let the emotional cortex fight its little fight. And then I listen. And then I change.

Because this universe of ours is so achingly beautiful. And we’re all in it together. We’re all going to same direction. I’m not here to take control of the wheel. Or to tell you what to believe. I’m just here to tell you that it is ok to stop. To Listen. To change.

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