105: The Backfire Effect (The Oatmeal)

                “What the study revealed was that the same part of the brain that responds to a physical threat responds to an intellectual one.”
                “[When confronted with a challenging concept, your emotional mind says:] I will kill it with swords!”
                The Oatmeal, commenting on this study

                A few weeks ago, my father and I went twelve rounds (or is it ten? Is that a boxing metaphor? I’m easily distracted by common phrases with origins I don’t know…) about gun control. A few days later, we went another twelve rounds–or even thirteen, maybe. We got angry. We yelled. We stomped. We were out on a ridge in California, and I feel like there was probably a squirrel watching, thinking, “What’s all this, then?”

                My dad and I agree on most things. We also have (of course) our old hurts. We also have (I’m grateful) a deep love for each other. The thing is, somehow in that moment, all of that real agreement and connection got pushed aside by a big angry SOMETHING. I think the appearance of that Something has a name: the Backfire Effect.

                The Oatmeal does a wonderful job of explaining the concept, but in brief, my mind tends toward “fight or flight” when I feel threatened. That’s not really a choice; yell at me unexpectedly, or surprise me with a bear behind my desk (well, now I have to check for that everyday. Which doesn’t sound bad, honestly…), and my pulse will jump, my muscles tense. I’m likely to have a surge of anger. The Backfire Effect is my brain responding to intellectual threats in the same way. I have core beliefs about how the world works and what is right. When those beliefs are threatened, the emotional center of my brain reacts the same way as it would react (in the Oatmeal adorable drawing) to an alligator with a knife.

                Since getting this new term from The Oatmeal’s comic, I’ve noticed myself Firing Back again and again. Once (“irony” is so often misused, but I think this is actually ironic) I even Fired Back about the Backfire Effect: I was discussing the comic with my students. When a group didn’t agree, I got mad. I wanted to yell at them. I wanted to shake them, beat my perspective into them. Then I looked down at my computer screen, saw the comic, and had to smile. When I looked up again, my students didn’t look like alligators with knives anymore.

                Since then it’s become a game. I watch for moments in which I’m experiencing the Backfire Effect. To be honest, I’m pretty bad at this game–for me, the effect usually includes a strong belief that I’m being reasonable, my anger is justified, and they (“they;” they’re terrible, aren’t they?) really are that wrong. I’m going to keep watching, though. If you put that bear behind my desk, I don’t think I could stop myself from feeling a moment of fear and anger–but then I could take a deep breath. The anger can have it’s moment (I’m not always against anger, after all), but it doesn’t need to become the only thing in my mind. If I take a deep breath, stay still, and look as calmly as I can at the bear, maybe we can figure out what’s next.

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