Blame it on the Oxytocin

This is a post on what is called “The Backfire Effect.” Essentially, it holds that:

Confronting a belief with facts to the contrary
only strengthens the initial belief.

I was discouraged when I sat down to write this post. How could it be, I wondered, that so many people were clinging so tenaciously to a candidate so obviously (to me) unqualified?

The more I learned of this Backfire Effect, the more depressed I became.
I needed to start with a little fun.

Remember Blame it on the Bossa Nova?  Edyie Gorme made it popular in the ’60s sometime and here she is singing it:



If you can remember, Blame It On the Oxytocin, with its magic spell, I’ll explain a bit later.  

The world is filled with people who believe opposite things, who hold opposing points of view, and behave in diametrically opposite ways. Usually, I find that just makes my world more interesting.

Diversity, in my experience, brings a zest, a spice to an otherwise rather vanilla existence.  AND, as I try to make clear in my memoir, it helps me understand my own positions, my own culture, my own decisions, more fully.

Have you ever divided the world into various dichotomies?  I did. Those with sailboats vs. those with motorboats was my first.  Then, there were the PC users vs. Macs.  Coffee vs. Tea. Morning vs. night people. Fun stuff.

But when we get into differences in politics, science, history, religion, health claims, and world views, things get serious. Conversations don’t help and are generally fraught with dissension. Why is that?

Consider these:

Abortion                                      Education                        Hillary Clinton                 Welfare
Affirmative Action                Evolution                          Immigration
Capital Punishment             Euthanasia                      Marijuana
Climate Change                     Guns                                   Vaccinations
Donald Trump                          Health Care                     War

Can you think of the one thing they all have in common?

Each of these issues has a community of believers, supporters, defenders. Some are better organized than others, but a community. A tribe.

And it is that pull to stay with our tribe that gets reinforced over and over again.  Let’s start at the beginning.

Cognitive Dissonance

Back in 1954, a fundamentalist group called The Seekers, believing that they would be rescued from the coming apocalypse by a flying saucer sent from the Planet Clarion, gathered to await the departure that never came. They had left behind their jobs, their families, and their homes.

When their anticipated salvation didn’t happen, rather than admit their mistake and return to “normal” life, they created an explanation for the disconnect. They had “spread so much light” with their obvious dedication that God had decided to spare earth from the coming catastrophe. Therefore, they had not only saved all of earth, there was no longer a need to save them via direct UFO express.

Over the ensuing years, their belief became stronger than ever. And they became more public about their beliefs.

This was fascinating stuff to me as a first year sociology major reading Leon Festinger’s 1959 work, When Prophecy Fails.  I still have my copy and had a bit of fun over the weekend perusing it. Festinger was interested then in what I’m interested in now: how is it that people cling to a belief in spite of evidence to the contrary?

We see what we expect to see, hear what we want to hear, and believe what reinforces our already held ideology.

You know, immediately, where you stand on each of these issues I listed above. You might feel more committed to some than others, but I’ll bet that you have a firm opinion on each of them.  Great.

Now, imagine you are faced with overwhelming evidence that shows your position is wrong.  Just imagine. Whatever your initial position, you are shown evidence that you are wrong.

Sit with it.  Feel your anterior cingulate cortex doing what it’s programmed to do.

We’re hard wired to hang onto our beliefs.
And the wiring is 
in our anterior cingulate cortex

With thanks to for the meme.

Actually, Charles Bukowski ‘s observation notwithstanding,  the more intelligent you are, the better  you are at rationalizing your position in the light of conflicting evidence.

Confronting a belief with facts to the contrary
only strengthens the initial belief.

Let me explain.

Homophily is the “birds of a feather” force that binds us to our tribe and signals who is the outsider. Safely ensconced within our tribe, we feel safe, secure.

Oxytocin flows (They don’t call it the trust hormone for nothing.) when we belong. It explains that warm, fuzzy feeling we get when we feel connected to others. We are social creatures at heart. And we like to feel good. We love to dance. Now you can hum a few bars of “Blame it on the oxytocin.” 

When we are shown evidence that we may be wrong, that we’ve taken the wrong path, or perhaps we’re not dancing to the right beat, our anterior cingulate cortex, which governs how we perceive pain, kicks in.

Cognitive dissonance hurts!  Embarrassment, shame, humiliation! We want it to go away. And we are uncannily creative in coming up with explanations to put the new information in its place. To make us feel safe again.

Our survival instinct is, I believe, the strongest instinct we have and it kicks in at the most unexpected times, in its Neanderthal form.  To the extent that our beliefs help define who we are, they are tied directly to our self-esteem, our self-confidence. We are emotionally invested in them.

And, when our beliefs are threatened, when evidence appears that challenges a deeply held belief, one which helps us identify who we are and where we belong, we react. And we react from that part of our brain that deals with emotions and feelings, not the part that deals with reason.


Thanks to for the image
Thanks to for the image

It’s just how we are wired.

As a result, to say “I don’t know,” can be scary.
It can be lonely.

It’s not always about being right. It’s about how  fixed we are in a given belief, how closed-minded we are in allowing the possibility of another point of view. It’s about whether we take on the mantle of the True Believer. It’s the absoluteness, the unquestionability of our belief that creates the distress.

“What about the ‘courage of one’s convictions’?” you fairly ask.

To hold fast to your belief, without having to prove the other wrong — and all the while acknowledging the possibility that you could be wrong yourself — might that be one definition of maturity?

I think back to Carl Sagan, who died way too soon.  He had a lovely book with a chapter called the Baloney Detection Kit.

The Baloney Detection Kit: Carl Sagan’s Rules for Bullshit-Busting and Critical Thinking

And Maria Popova has made it easy to link to Sagan’s list through her weekly blog,  Brain Pickings (above; just click on the image).  To whet your appetite, here’s the quote from Sagan:

Try not to get overly attached to a hypothesis just because it’s yours. It’s only a way station in the pursuit of knowledge. Ask yourself why you like the idea. Compare it fairly with the alternatives. See if you can find reasons for rejecting it. If you don’t, others will.

[learn_more caption=”For a list of references used to produce this post, click here”]

David Gal and Derek Rucker, 2010. When in Doubt, Shout! — Paradoxical Influences of Doubt on Proselytizing.

Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler, 2010. “When Corrections Fail: The persistence of political misperceptions.” Political Behavior 32(2): 303-330

Jason Reifler and Brendan Nyhan, 2011. “Opening the Political Mind? The effects of self-affirmation and graphical information on factual misperceptions.”

James Kuklinski, 2000. “Misinformation and the Currency of Democratic Citizenship.”

Chris Mooney, 2014. Mother Jones. “Here are 5 Infuriating Examples of Facts Making People Dumber.”

David Redlowski, 2002. “Hot Cognition or Cool Consideration? Testing the Effects of Motivated Reasoning on Political Decision Making.”


What can be done?

The experts aren’t sure. They’ve been more focused on the what, why, where, and how  than on the “what’s to be done?”  Or, less political, the “how are these effects minimized?”  Two points, however, come up often:

  • We tend to believe things are true when they are repeated often (and from multiple sources).  Ad execs have certainly taken this one to heart.
  • It is impossible to use logic and reason to dissuade someone from a belief that he/she did not arrive at through logic and reason. An appeal to emotion works.

“It’s never been easier for people to be wrong, and at the same time feel more certain that they are right.”  So wrote Joe Keohane in a 2010 article in The Boston Globe, “How Facts Backfire. Researchers discover a surprising threat to democracy: our brains.”   And six years later, I fear that’s even truer. But at least now we might have a way to move forward.

I’m not talking only of the True Believers who will vote for “he who shall not be named,” and the Republican leadership who have chosen party over country. I’m thinking also of the “Bernie or Bust” folks, the idealists and young zealots who couch the debate by vilifying the opposition.

Unless we give them a tribe to come home to, I fear for that apocalypse that never came in 1954. And there’ll still be no UFO to carry us away.

It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble.
It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so. 
-Mark Twain

29 Responses

  1. Kathleen Pooler
    | Reply

    Thank you for deconstructing our current state of affairs in a way that sheds some understanding about what goes behind our behaviors and actions. This election cycle has created more angst and turmoil than any other. I keep hoping that reason will prevail.Thanks for another meticulously-researched and thought-provoking post.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Thank you, Kathy. It’s been a bit discouraging this past week as I learned that reason, something I’ve long relied upon, is not the answer for these times. It’s chemical, emotional, communal. How can we build a community that includes these folks who feel so left out? Can I keep my heart open to their differences while staying true to myself? I do not know. Thanks for starting us off.

  2. Merril Smith
    | Reply

    Thank you for this interesting post, Janet. These are scary times. I’m hoping that as the man with the hair gets ever crazier and less sympathetic, as in his attacks on the Muslim parents of the dead war hero or the baby he kicked out, some who were supporting him will think again. But his true believers are with him till the end, I’m afraid. I think the “blame it on the oxytocin” certainly shed some light on why people do or think what they do. I also think that many people do not analyze arguments, and instead get all of their information from sound bites or bogus sources. There is also this piece that I read recently.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      George Lakoff’s name was so familiar to me, yet I couldn’t place him. So, I Googled him and found he is disciple of Noam Chomsky, a linguist, and is from New Jersey — my old stomping grounds. I probably dated him once upon a time. Nah, probably not; but could have. Thanks for the article. I love reading stuff like that and it was interesting to get his angle on this same phenomenon I’ve been tackling of late. That sound bit phenomenon you mentioned is one reason I’ve stopped taking in the evening news. I found I was starting to buy into the sound bites too. It’s easy to do. Thanks for weighing in. You so often bring a new perspective.

  3. Ian Mathie
    | Reply

    It takes a really big and mature person to admit they have been wrong and change direction to the opposing point of view. The urge to remain part of the herd, to sustain your place in the social group on which you have put your hat is very strong to the point of compulsion in the face of logic and contradictory evidence, so people submit and don’t argue any more, continuing to carry the dying torch at all costs. Unless they are big enough.

    Bernie managed it when he told his supporters to vote for Hilary. That doesn’t mean he agrees with her on everything, it means he recognised the inevitability and was horrified more by the alternative – he whose name you are reluctant to speak.

    This is a bit like your previous post about prejudice, for there is something in common in how one must deal with it. The only effective way of defeating prejudice is by direct exposure and confrontation with the object of that prejudice. So it is here; the only way this mass hysteria, for that it what is maintaining the blond bloke’s position, can be defeated is when people have to face the consequences. That sounds pretty daunting, but until the reality is evident, the masses will not change their views.
    If you don’t believe this, just look at what happened in Germany in the late 1930s. It was the same paradigm.

    Good luck America! I’ll keep my fingers cross you see sense before it’s too late. But discontent with the current political order could upset all that. Just look at Brexit. That was a riposte to the current order because people are discontented, although in or case the consequences may not be quite so earth shattering as Europe is crumbling anyway.

    By the way, your vanilla experience might surprise you as vanilla really has a strong taste, it’s not bland and insipid! 🙂

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Ah, but Ian, vanilla is no butter pecan. Or chocolate. Not even close. Of course if it’s got those pieces of the vanilla bean floating within, it’ll pass. Particularly if you put enough hot fudge and walnuts over it. 🙂 I see we may have ice cream flavors separating us. Alas.

      I have been curious how what’s happening here might be related to the Brexit vote in the UK. Thanks for bringing that up. (I hear Scotland may, as a result, vote to withdraw from the UK. What a mess Cameron got you folks into). It wasn’t so long ago I likened what was happening here to what had just happened in Canada, with Justin Trudeau winning unexpectedly. Alas … (I’m doing alas a lot) Alas.

      Thanks for being here.

      • Ian Mathie
        | Reply

        Alas and Alak indeed. You think we’re in a mess? I see from today’s newspaper that you may now have to deal with a goon who thinks it’s okay to use nuclear weapons, just because you’ve got them. Someone tie his hands quickly, before he reaches for the button!

        • Janet
          | Reply

          And I just read that Republican leaders hesitate to condemn him for fear of losing Congesdional seats. Alienate his supporter, they believe, and lose Congressional elections. I’ve never seen such lack of statesmanship.

          • Ian Mathie

            In my book they’re just gutless, unwilling to stand up for sanity and stuffed with self-interest. But then that’s why they are politicians.

          • Janet Givens

            Hey Ian, some really can be for the people. They are just people. And “we the people” must work to keep them honest. Here’s one of our local’s running for Lt. Gov here in Vermont.


            Check out the YouTube video he made.

            OTHERS? I encourage you to post links to your favorite politician, someone you can recommend. Hmmm. This may make a full blog post in a few weeks. I’m off to vote now (voting early).

          • Ian Mathie

            My favourite politician? Do you mean the one I most like to hate? I cannot, for the life of me, think of any other reason for liking a politician. Even those few who appear to be doing something for ‘the people’ are generally exploiting public opinion for their own personal reasons. Cynical? Maybe, but that’s how I see them.

          • Janet Givens

            Cynical, indeed. Which gives me an idea for a future post. So, thanks. 🙂

          • Ian Mathie

            Always pleased to contribute. 🙂

  4. Val
    | Reply

    I really appreciate the thought and research that has gone into this article Janet. Good stuff!
    I’m also wondering how individualism comes in to the equation here in the US. I see it as “my” belief is right vs “your” belief is right. It seems also to about personal preference and the rights of the individual.
    When a strong ego centric individual is told they are wrong, then the ego reacts to defend and retaliate.
    As you say, the answer lies not in logic, but is creating a different vision or alternative based on emotion … and even better when it ties in to an other cultural value, such as freedom.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Thank you, Val. I appreciate your comments. Your summation of the ego rising to the occasion is, I think, the “psych” way of saying the same thing; so, yes. As we learn more about the human body and psyche, I think we have been able to expand our language accordingly. It’s so interesting that you brought individualism into the conversation. I think individualism colors everything in this US culture, to one extent or the other. We are a very individualistic culture, certainly. I’m curious whether that might soften as we get more immigrants from communal cultures assimilating. So many ways to address this, certainly. How refreshing, isn’t it, to toss around different ideas in a medium of support and acceptance and curiosity? That’s been my ultimate goal here. I’m so glad you commented.

  5. Joan Z. Rough
    | Reply

    Great research and post, Janet! What you have presented me with helps me to see more clearly through the turmoil of this election year. It’s always good to know how our bodies and brains fit into the mix. Thanks!

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Thanks so much, Joan. Yes. I needed some way to make sense of it all. This helped. I only wish there was a clearer path ahead.

  6. Sherrey Meyer
    | Reply

    Janet, thanks for a well thought out, thoroughly researched post touching on the scariest election year I remember since first voting when I was 18. Not once since then I have I worried so much about the outcome. You have opened the gateway to reason and perhaps hope of a voting populace more committed to decency, respect, and compassion.

    • Janet
      | Reply

      Thank you, Sherrey. I appreciate your thoughts.

  7. Tim Fearnside
    | Reply

    Janet – a fascinating topic, and a most excellent post. It has me thinking about the way in which ideological movements rarely seem to based on facts, and why, also, they are so difficult to contend with in any sort of reasoned manner. The farther the ideology strays from facts, the more irrational it becomes, and the greater the cognitive dissonance of its adherents becomes in response to opposing facts and viewpoints. The only way to combat this, it would seem, would be to play the same sort of game — i.e., by appealing to the very emotions driving the movement in the first place, but this presents its own risk — of the “reasoned opposition” becoming its own emotion-driven ideology. I think we’ve seen some of both of this in this most recent primary cycle, as you suggest. It’s a bit of a conundrum, but how to solve it? Hmm . . .

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Hmmm, indeed. It raises the concept of identity politics to a whole new level. And gets me thinking about my own identity, what’s it’s hooked to, how resilient it is, etc. and what I need to do to maintain my own footing in a world that’s turning inside out/upside down before my eyes. Thanks for adding your voice here Tim.

  8. […] weeks ago I wrote how facts don’t always help us change our opinion; often, in fact, they do the opposite. I lived that lesson during this past […]

  9. […] this tack last August 3 with Blame it on the Oxytocin (with its magic spell), while watching the Republican National Convention.  I continued it after my week at music camp […]

  10. […] did I write at the beginning of August?  I started with Weltschmerz, that state of sadness and depression when the world is not as we […]

  11. […] touched on this idea with my post on “Blame it on the oxytocin … with it’s magic spell” last August.   And yes, oxytocin, that hormone that […]

  12. Cathy M. Monaghan
    | Reply

    Thank you so much for all the thought and research that went into this post Janet. I couldn’t read it all in one sitting, I had to get up and do the Bossa Nova while I fed the dog, hung the laundry (yes, I still do that!) and let this all sink in slowly. It sure does make sense and explains a lot. I’m sending the link to your post to my younger brother who is a Liberal living in the most Conservative area in Arizona. It might help him understand why “these idiots can’t see the truth.” I’m also sending this to my older brother who is a Conservative, so he can understand why Ken and I “can’t see the reality.” LOL! I’ll let you know if I hear from either one. Love your writing and look forward to all your posts!!

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Hi Cathy, Thank you so much for taking a look at this now-year-old post. I smiled when you mentioned hanging the laundry. Have you seen my post on that? Here’s the link. Did you know in some areas, having a clothesline is illegal?

      I love it when these older posts get a second chance. Thanks again. And thanks so much for sharing this as you’ve done. Truly appreciated.
      Janet Givens recently posted…He’s My BrotherMy Profile

  13. Heidi Love
    | Reply

    I love the line, “It is impossible to use logic and reason to dissuade someone from a belief that he/she did not arrive at through logic and reason.” This is a timely piece in our culture today. Thank Janet.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Thank you Heidi. These past two years have certainly given me new avenues to persue on the blog front. I’m glad this one resonated.

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