Beliefs and the Backfire Effect

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

I’m going to tell you some things.

You’re not going to believe these things I tell you.

And that’s okay.

You have good reason not to, you were raised on certain information.

But I need you to keep listening regardless of what you believe.

I don’t care if you’re liberal, conservative, or somewhere in between.

I don’t care if you’re a cat person, a dog person, or a tarantula.

Morning person or night owl.

iPhone or Android.

Coke or Pepsi.

I don’t care.

All I care about is that you read this to the end.

Sound good?

Then let’s begin.

You may have heard that Brigham Young instituted polygamy and was among one of the first polygamists.

Except it isn’t true.

In 2013, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints published an essay called, “Plural Marriage in Kirtland and Nauvoo”stating that “The revelation on plural marriage was not written down until 1843, but its early verses suggest that part of it emerged from Joseph Smith’s study of the Old Testament in 1831.” It was, in fact, Joseph Smith who instituted polygamy.

Upon learning this information, I want to ask you something:

How did it feel to learn this new fact about the origins of polygamy?

I stated a thing, I provided evidence of that thing, and presumably you now believe in the thing I stated.

Presumably, your belief in Mormon polygamy has changed with little or no friction.

Presumably, the next time you’re at church and polygamy comes up in conversation, you’re going to proudly impart this newfound knowledge to your fellow Mormons.


Terrific, let’s continue.

WHAT if I told you that Joseph Smith didn’t just institute polygamy, but he also practiced it himself?

What if I told you that according to the 2013 essay, “careful estimates put the number between 30 and 40”? What if I told you that a number of those women (possibly up to 11) were married to other men, making Joseph Smith not just a polygamist, but also polyandrous? Source 1 Source 2 Source 3 Source 4

NOW, let’s try this again:

How did it feel to learn this fact about Joseph Smith?

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 Joseph Smith was a bad person.

I could go through all my cited sources and cherry-pick arguments that either deify or demonize Joseph Smith.

I could paint a portrait of a monster, or I could exonerate a prophet.

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 Joseph Smith’s polygamy was rather easy to accept.

I would even wager that when I told you the first fact, you accepted it without question.

“Oh my, how gosh-darn interesting.”

But when I told you 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.


And that’s ok.

That’s all part of it.

Let’s try a few more.

Joseph Smith had a limp.

He was blonde, with blue or hazel eyes with thick lashes, and a prominent nose; he had small hands, large feet, and a chipped front tooth, which sometimes whistled as he spoke. Source 1.

Joseph Smith ran for president with Sidney Rigdon as vice president. Source 1

Joseph Smith planned the city of Nauvoo. Source 1 Source 2 Source 3

Joseph Smith was Lieutenant General of the Nauvoo Legion. Source 1 Source 2 Source 3 Source 4

Joseph Smith was a freemason. Source 1 Source 2

Again, as you read 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, and then we’re done.

Joseph Smith and his friends had wine in Carthage Jail the day before he was killed. Source 1

Joseph Smith wasn’t wearing garments when he died. Source 1

Joseph Smith was convicted as a glasslooker. Source 1 Source 2 Source 3 Source 4

Joseph Smith used a “… seer stone in a hat, pressed his face into the hat to block out extraneous light, and read aloud the English words that appeared on the instrument..” to translate the golden plates. Source 1 Source 2 Source 3 Source 4

Joseph Smith’s translation of the papyri from The Book of Abraham is actually a pagan text called “The Book of Breathings”. Source 1

Joseph Smith established the Council of Fifty, “ordained… to be the governing body of the world, with himself as chairman, Prophet, Priest, and King over the Council and the world”. Source 1Source 2 Source 3

Joseph Smith founded a bank called the Kirtland Safety Society. Source 1 Source 2 Source 3 Source 4 Source 5

Of Joseph’s wives, two were fourteen years old – Helen Mar Kimball and Nancy Winchester. An additional seven were between the ages of 16 and 19. Source 1

Joseph Smith wasn’t sealed to Emma until 1843, when he had already been sealed to over twenty other women. Source 1Source 2 Source 3

Joseph Smith “did not disclose all of his plural marriages precisely when they happened. For example, he had been sealed to Emily and Eliza Partridge already, and Emma later had one of her periods of acceptance of plural marriage, on condition that she get to choose the wives. She chose Emily and Eliza, and so they were resealed to Joseph without disclosing that they were already sealed.” Source 1

How’d those last ones feel?

Depending on your beliefs, I’m guessing it may have made some of you pretty steamed?

At the very least, you can concede that it felt different to hear those statements compared to the ones about Joseph Smith having a limp or planning a city.


But why?

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 this 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 crap-fracking-bonkers to me.

It turns out crap-fracking-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 an MRI machine.

Once inside, they were presented with counterarguments to strongly held political beliefs.

A few examples:

“Laws restricting gun ownership should be more restrictive.”

“Gay marriage should not be legalized.”

As participants were read these counterarguments, various parts of their brains were scanned for activity.

What the study revealed was that the same part of the brain that responds to a PHSYICAL threat responds to an INTELLECTUAL one.

This area of the brain is known as the amygdala, and it’s the emotional core of your mind.

Unfortunately, it makes us biologically wired to react to threatening information the same way we’d react to being attacked by a predator.

From an evolutionary standpoint, it makes sense.

If you were a caveman and another caveman threw a boulder at your head, you wouldn’t react by logically debating the pros and cons of getting brained.

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 Joseph Smith was the one who instituted polygamy, it probably didn’t ruffle many feathers.

But when I suggested he married women that were married to other men, I’m guessing it caused strife with some of you.

There are obvious cultural reasons for this; polygamy is a sensitive, hot-button issue.

But there are biological reasons as well: the amygdala of your brain is screaming “BATTLE STATIONS.”


Some of you may have held a worldview that Joseph Smith was a prophet 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 backfire effect. It’s a biological way of protecting a worldview.

Just remember that your worldview isn’t a perfect house that was build to last forever.

It’s a cheap condo, and over time most of it will turn to shit.

So, what do we do about this?

Some of you have probably been nodding along in agreement, waiting for me to deliver a series of clever, combative ways to offset the backfire effect.

The disappointing truth is that I don’t have much advice for you.

I don’t have a way to change the behavior of seven-point-five billion people carrying their beliefs around like precious gems wrapped in hand grenades.

Sure, there are ways of changing people’s minds that are more effective than others, but ultimately they all fall short.

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 the amygdala 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 in the 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’s okay to stop.

To listen.

To change.

Credit to the Oatmeal.

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