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The psychology behind that popular new comic from 'The Oatmeal'

Screencap from Matthew Inman's cartoon,
Screencap from Matthew Inman's cartoon, "You're not going to believe what I'm about to tell you."
Matthew Inman/The Oatmeal

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Sometimes, you need to be pretty creative to get an idea across.

That's the approach cartoonist Matthew Inman often takes in his popular webcomic, The Oatmeal. And Inman pretty much nails it with his latest effort, titled "You're not going to believe what I'm about to tell you."

Using graphic and often profane illustrations, Inman tackles the question, "Why do we resist information that may affect our deeply held beliefs?"

It's a comic treatment, but the meat of it is backed by science and psychological concepts like something called "the backfire effect."

So, why do we often resist factual information when it challenges our long-held beliefs?

Take Two broke down the comic with David Pizarro, professor of psychology at Cornell University.

The cartoon starts by giving readers a way to measure what information makes them uncomfortable and what doesn't. It uses the first president, George Washington as an example.


Let's start with this first example dispelling the belief that George Washington had wood teeth. It's not that hard to take in. Why not, David?

It's not really a cherished belief. Nobody feels threatened by this. It's exactly the sort of thing that we get pleasure from. "Did you know?" We even take some delight in knowing new things, and I think that's important to remember. This one doesn't bother us.

It's pretty benign on the surface. Explain, David, why some people might feel angry or uncomfortable when they learn that maybe George Washington actually had dentures made with teeth from slaves?

This one gets at the heart of anybody who has been raised in the United States. George Washington famously is in the pantheon of our cherished American presidents. He couldn't lie, he is considered virtuous. The thought that he would have something as morally abhorrent as the teeth of slaves is something that strikes at the heart of what gets as close to a sacred belief as you can have with something like a secular figure like George Washington. 

This cartoon really gets into something called "the backfire effect." What's that? 

The backfire effect is a cool little label for — essentially — trying to understand why we're resistant to information. 

What exactly is the difference between the first fact and the second fact? Maybe here the general question is: "Why don't we change our minds about some things, but we find it easy to change our minds about other things?" Why don't people change their cherished beliefs?

It turns out it's very, very hard to do. You could say, "maybe we don't have the right information. Let's give everybody the right information." But it turns out that that's not enough. You can give people the information and it still doesn't change their mind. 

What you find is, when people's beliefs that they want to hold, that are cherished, that they're motivated to keep believing, they will delve into it and they will reason. What they're  really doing there is finding reasons not to believe it. 

What that does psychologically is it gives you a whole toolbox of evidence to refute that belief.

So your brain is building a wall? 

Your brain is a good lawyer. Your brain is saying, "Hey, let's just do our best at arguing against this because if we have to change our mind about this, it's going to be really, really uncomfortable."

Press the blue play button above to hear more about how Inman's new cartoon might fit into the national dialogue on some hot-button issues.