Have You Ever Heard of the “Backfire Effect? Don’t Get Upset When We Tell You…

Why do arguments get so heated online? Can’t we have a peaceful discussion, even if we’re addressing a hot-button issue? Unfortunately, maybe not.

Today we’d like to take you through a series of thought experiments. (The facts below are verifiable, by the way.)

Have You Ever Heard of the “Backfire Effect? Don’t Get Upset When We Tell You…
Have You Ever Heard of the “Backfire Effect? Don’t Get Upset When We Tell You…

Part 1: George Washington’s Wooden Teeth
Have You Ever Heard of the “Backfire Effect? Don’t Get Upset When We Tell You…

Among the many legends about George Washington, one of the most popular is that he wore a set of wooden dentures. The story goes that he lost his teeth in his twenties while fighting a battle. It’s a pretty intense story, right? The thing is, it’s a lie.

Doctors at Baltimore’s Museum of Dentistry performed laser scans on Washington’s dentures, and the truth is even stranger than the myth; his false teeth were comprised of a variety of materials, including ivory, animal teeth (donkey, specifically), as well as gold and lead.

Have You Ever Heard of the “Backfire Effect? Don’t Get Upset When We Tell You…

Part 2: George Washington’s Teeth (It Get’s Worse)

Ok, by now you’ve accepted the fact that George Washington’s teeth were not, in fact, made of wood. Here’s where the story gets a little more intense. It was recently discovered that our first President had another set of teeth; he owned a set of dentures made from real teeth–those of enslaved Africans.

Intermission: How Did That Feel?

That’s a lot harder to accept, right? Granted, cultural norms were much different in Washington’s time; this information doesn’t mean that he was some kind of monster.

People are more apt to check your sources when you present an incendiary argument, even when you present the information calmly and in a well-informed way.

Part 3: Other Myths

Here are a few more facts that are pretty easy to accept. Contrary to popular belief:

Have You Ever Heard of the “Backfire Effect? Don’t Get Upset When We Tell You…
Have You Ever Heard of the “Backfire Effect? Don’t Get Upset When We Tell You…

  • Napoleon was actually relatively tall for a Frenchman of his era (he was 5’7″).
  • A human would not explode, boil, or be ripped apart in a vacuum (they would simply die without oxygen)
  • The toilet was not invented by a man named “Crapper”.
  • Houseflies don’t die within 24 hours (their lifespan is closer to a month

Ok, here we go again. The following are some harder-to-accept facts that will likely cause an emotional response:

Have You Ever Heard of the “Backfire Effect? Don’t Get Upset When We Tell You…

  • Jesus was most likely not born anywhere near December 25th, and was a short middle eastern jewish man.
  • America’s Pledge of Allegiance was penned by a prominent member of the Socialist party.
  • A majority (6/7, in fact) of Supreme Court Justices who voted yea on Roe V. Wade were appointed by Republican Presidents.

The Backfire Effect: Why Some New Arguments Feel Different

This brings up an interesting psychological phenomenon: why do people get angry when new information comes forward? Why do some people use this information not as an opportunity to grow, but to become more entrenched in their old beliefs?

Doctors of Southern California’s Brain and Creativity Institute studied many people’s brains while in an MRI. They found something fascinating: your brain responds the same way to an intellectual threat (i.e. unpleasant information) as it does to a physical threat.

When someone’s core beliefs are attacked, the brain takes it as an attack on deeply-held beliefs, often formed in childhood. Your reality is similar to a house, resting on a foundation of beliefs.

In a world dominated by largely-anonymous computer interactions, it’s much easier for people to use aggressive and angry words. So, what’s the answer if you want to debate politics online? Tread carefully, friends!