it doesn't seem right

January 6, 2022

In addition to thinking a lot about what happened at the Capitol on January 6 of last year, I’ve been preoccupied with thoughts of my laundry detergent and what it has to do with politics, love, and getting sick.

I was shopping for laundry detergent recently, browsing through rows of large, bulky, plastic containers filled with heavy liquid detergent when a small bag sitting next to the Arm & Hammer caught my eye. The bag was filled with powdered detergent, "enough for 50 loads," the package said. That doesn’t sound right, I told myself. How could a small bag of detergent like that do so much when those big plastic bottles sitting right there are what it usually takes?

I read more of what was written on the packaging. “Liquid detergents mostly consist of water….” Ok, so, those huge containers that use up so much plastic are really just holding water? I thought about it. Does that sound right? I asked myself. It’s liquid, after all, but it’s thick and gooey. It can’t have that much water in it.

I read on. “Just one tablespoon per load.” I was surprised. That definitely doesn’t sound right, I thought. Even if you removed all the water from detergent, surely one tablespoon wouldn’t be enough to do one load.

I concluded that there was no way it would work. No way it would clean the household laundry sufficiently. If we use this detergent, I thought to myself, we are going to smell.

But our single local grocery store in town doesn’t carry our typical detergent, one that’s free of dyes and perfumes (which Paul is allergic to). This small bag of powdered detergent was free of dyes and perfumes.

I thought, Do I buy a huge container of liquid detergent and risk Paul breaking out in hives, or do I buy this powdered detergent and risk us both having dirty clothes? I thought about the fact that we still had some liquid detergent left at home, so if we tried this powdered stuff, and it didn’t work, we’d still have enough of our preferred detergent for a couple of loads before we’d need more.

Besides, I hate waste, and I hate how we use way too much plastic in so much of our consumer packaging.

So, I bought the detergent. Even though I was not convinced it would work. Even though, after I brought it home and used it to do a couple of loads, I couldn’t stop thinking, This doesn’t seem right.

"Not seeming right” is a reason we often give for not believing something to be true – even when it is true. We may believe that something doesn't seem right when it doesn't line up to what we already know (that laundry detergent looks nothing like every other type of laundry detergent I’ve ever tried). Things don’t seem right if we know that most other people wouldn’t agree (no one else I know uses this detergent). We may conclude that something isn’t right when it doesn’t line up with evidence we gather - but if we don’t gather all the evidence, we may conclude incorrectly (if all I’ve ever used is liquid detergent, I’ve got some knowledge, but not enough). Confirmation bias may lead us to gather evidence proving that what doesn’t seem right could never be right (even after a couple of loads, I kept sniffing our washed clothes almost hoping they would smell).

Sometimes we refuse to believe something sounds right because we don’t want it to be true. Maybe we refuse to believe that a global pandemic is as bad as it actually is because we don’t want it to be bad. We don’t want anything to disrupt our lives, scare us, or force us to change our routines. So, we decide that it doesn't "seem right" for COVID to be as dangerous as we hear it is. We let our guards down. We don’t get vaccinated. We don’t wear masks. And we become incubators for COVID to mutate and grow stronger – if we don’t get sick or make someone else ill.

We often refuse to face truths when things are painful, like they can be in romantic relationships. I've known more than one person who's been left by someone they were in love with. The sudden rejection didn't "seem right," so they chose to believe that their ex had a hang up, like a fear of commitment. They had no evidence either way, but the pain of rejection is hard to bear, so we conclude it doesn't make sense.

There are a lot of false beliefs out there, beliefs that are causing a lot of trouble for a lot of people. And many of them have started with someone scratching their heads and saying to themselves, “That doesn’t seem right.”

Someone living in a Trump-loving town, whose friends all voted for Trump, who personally knows no one who voted for Biden, would look at the election results and think, “Biden won?! Now, that doesn’t seem right!” And they might join the riot at the Capitol or engage in some other behavior that could threaten our democracy.

Behavioral economists (like Daniel Kahneman) would say that just because something sounds right doesn’t mean it is right (the illusion of validity). Some people believe COVID is a human-manufactured bioweapon because this idea “sounds right.” It just seems to make sense that this virus emerged unnaturally, given how devastating it’s been. This doesn’t mean it’s true. What makes it true is the evidence. What sounds right isn’t always right.

But also, just because something sounds wrong doesn’t mean it’s wrong. Many are reluctant to believe that the COVID vaccines work because they were manufactured so quickly. For them to be effective just “doesn’t seem right.” But what makes it right is the data. What sounds wrong isn’t always wrong.

It’s been about two weeks since I’ve bought that detergent, and so far, it’s working great. Better, even, that the liquid detergent we’d been using.

In the meantime, as I’ve been obsessed with evaluating the cleanliness of what comes out of the dryer, I’ve also been paying attention to how often I think to myself that something "doesn’t seem right." Specifically, I’ve been paying attention to how often I follow up that thought with some good old-fashioned objective investigation.

I’m ashamed to say that I too often choose the more efficient option.

I’m hoping this will change.

There’s nothing wrong with sizing up new information against what you already know, but if you find yourself saying or thinking, “that doesn’t sound right” (or something to that effect) then take particular notice. It be a warning sign that you’re thinking too fast.

Thinking too fast could mean missing out on a great laundry detergent. Or, the consequences could be much greater. Either way, before jumping to conclusions, consider whether it's best not to take that chance.


That is all.

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