You probably have strong beliefs about abortion, police brutality or immigration. Would you change those beliefs if presented with inarguable, factual information that contradicts them?
You likely want to say yes, but in reality the answer for most people is no.
A comic by Matthew Inman, better known as The Oatmeal, depicts this phenomenon called the backfire effect, a psychological behavior that involves not only rejecting information that challenge our core beliefs, but actually letting that information further entrench us in the beliefs we already hold.
Inman leads the reader to the backfire effect by first explaining that George Washington did not actually have wooden teeth, but they were actually made of lead, gold, hippopotamus ivory, and horse and donkey teeth. He then also cites sources that say Washington had a second pair of dentures, which were made from the teeth of slaves. He notes the reader probably had a different reaction to those two sets of information.
“You may have noticed that the first fact about George Washington’s teeth was rather easy to accept,” Inman wrote. “But when I told you about the second fact, you immediately checked my sources and are now furiously composing an informed-yet-incendiary retort which you will boldly deliver to me in the form of a sour, blustering Facebook comment.”
The comic explains the science behind the effect, citing studies of the brain that showed it reacts to intellectual threats the same way it reacts to physical threats. If a belief is a major part of your worldview, and a new piece of information doesn’t fit in with your worldview, your brain protects you by rejecting the new information.
“Just remember that your worldview isn’t a perfect house that was built to last forever,” Inman wrote. “It’s a cheap condo, and over time most of it will turn to s---.”
Though some might argue an internet comic isn’t the best place to go for educational information, Inman’s work is backed up by several studies, many of them focused on political beliefs. One Dartmouth study identified 130 individuals as liberal or conservative, asked them to identify if they believed weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq, presented some with an article that cited evidence that WMDs were never found in Iraq and then asked again if they believed WMDs were found in Iraq.
While liberals in the study answered with more negative responses after reading the article, conservatives actually answered more positively after reading the article that they believed WMDs were in Iraq. The answers of conservatives who read an article that did not cite evidence against the WMDs remained about the same.
Inman says the comic was inspired by the “You Are Not So Smart” podcast, which highlighted a study by David P. Redlawsk on how much negative information voters would need to learn about their preferred presidential candidate before changing their mind. He found that voters would originally reject the negative info, but that a “tipping point” did eventually exist for everyone.
While many professed love for the comic, some commenters criticized Inman for targeting conservatives, pointing out the facts he chose to highlight – such as six of seven justices in the Roe v. Wade majority decision being appointed by Republican presidents – would typically violate a conservative’s worldview rather than a liberal’s.