I am about to tell you some things. You are not going to want to believe some of the things I tell you. That’s OK. You have a very good reason not to, but I want you to keep reading anyway. No matter what you believe, I want you to read on. It doesn’t matter if you’re a dog person or a cat person; Coke or Pepsi; iPhone or android; liberal or conservative; morning person or sane person; I don’t care. I just want you to read to the end. Sound good? Deal? OK, let’s begin.
I bet you’ve heard that George Washington had wooden teeth. Many of us might insist we even learned this fact in school. Indeed, there are scholarly articles written as late as the mid-20th century that state the existence of Washington’s wooden teeth as an absolute fact. It just isn’t true though. Laser scans on a set of 200-year-old dentures owned by our first president revealed they were made from gold, lead, hippopotamus, horse and donkey parts. Admittedly, Washington’s mouth was a horror show, but there was no wood to be found inside it.
Now how did me telling you this make you feel? You probably started off believing one thing. I then told you something different. I provided some evidence to support the different fact, and now you presumably believe the new information instead of the old. Likely, you now have a new fact to share at a party the next time conversation inevitably turns to George Washington’s teeth.
Now let’s try something different.
What if I told you that the set of dentures mentioned above weren’t Ol’ George’s only pair. What if I told you he had another set, not made from wood, but instead made from the teeth of slaves? He did. Indeed, a ledger kept at Mount Vernon kept a record of Washington’s purchase of the “Negro teeth.” His dentist even advertised in newspapers offering to purchase teeth with lower prices for teeth from slaves.
Now how did this fact make you feel? I essentially told you the same thing as earlier. George Washington didn’t have wooden teeth, but instead he had dentures made from something else. I’m betting there was more friction in accepting this fact than the first one. George Washington was an American hero. He was a 6’4 mountain of a man that led our country to independence against the British. He headed the convention that drafted the framework of our democracy, and he made the tremendously brave decision to step down as president after two terms to help prevent the United States from slipping back into a monarchy.
George Washington was also a flawed human. He was an elite aristocrat. A slave owner. He condoned violence as a way to keep people subservient, and he bought and sold human beings for economic profit. However, I’m not trying to convince you that George Washington was a bad person. I’m not trying to convince you he was a good person. I don’t really care either way.
What I’m trying to get you to consider is how each point made you feel. I bet the first fact about Washington’s teeth was interesting and easy to accept. I also bet the second point was harder. It might have even made you angry or want to check my sources. That’s OK. It’s actually how I want you to feel. In fact, I want to do it again. Let’s try some more.
Napoleon wasn’t short. He was actually above average height for a Frenchman of his time. Thomas Crapper didn’t invent the toilet, and the origin of the word “crap” has nothing to do with the man. Houseflies can live for a month. People don’t explode in space. We just pass out, suffocate and die.
How did these facts make you feel? Fine? Good! Let’s continue.
Jesus wasn’t born on Dec. 25. The Pledge of Allegiance was written to be used for all nations with any flag. Also, the author of the pledge’s daughter objected to the words “under God” being added to the pledge in the ’50s. Six of the seven Supreme Court justices who voted in favor of Roe v. Wade were appointed by Republicans.
How did these make you feel? Bit tougher? Stronger emotions about any of these? Want to call any of them “fake news?” I bet you can at least say that you felt differently reading these than you did reading the ones about houseflies or Napoleon. But why?
Turns out your brain is to blame. There is a well-documented psychological phenomenon called the “backfire effect.” It’s a bit complicated and has to do with a little part of your brain called the amygdala. However, it essentially results in us not just rejecting evidence that runs counter to our strongly held beliefs, but actually makes us believe our original beliefs more strongly after we have heard evidence that challenges them. This seems bonkers and totally backward, but it has been confirmed true time and again. Show someone clear evidence that challenges one of their core beliefs, and it might actually strengthen their original belief.
So why am I telling you this? I just want you to recognize it. When you read evidence counter to something you believe it is easy to ignore it. It’s easy to declare that the new information is tainted somehow, insist the study was flawed or the source biased. However, I want you to try doing something different next time you find yourself in this situation. Remember this article. Remember how the facts presented made you feel. Remember that some of the facts caused an emotional reaction. Remember, and then consider your current feelings. If your current feelings are emotionally charged, then take a moment. Let your emotions rage, and then take another moment and give the new information a second look.
Maybe, just maybe, you might be able to change your mind.
John Judkins is a Greenfield attorney.