Ideally, when we’re faced with facts that challenge our long-standing beliefs and opinions, we would consider the new information and rectify our beliefs accordingly.
The reality is, however, that we humans tend to reject evidence that puts our beliefs to a test. In fact, it often has the exact opposite effect: it makes us double down on our existing beliefs with increased conviction and enthusiasm. In psychology, this phenomenon is called the backfire effect.
What Is the Backfire Effect?
The backfire effect is a cognitive bias that causes people to have increased conviction in their beliefs when faced with opposing evidence. In other words, disconfirming facts only strengthen their stance.
Is this bad for us? Although keeping our self-identity and worldview intact can have some benefits for us, problems are likely to arise when we stick to incorrect beliefs.
Here are a couple of examples from studies on the subject.
One study on political decision-making and voting preferences showed that presenting negative information about a political candidate to voters who backed that candidate increased their support, rather than diminished it.
Another study was conducted to find out whether positive information about vaccinations encourages parents to vaccinate their kids. The results showed that when parents who are against vaccinations are informed about the benefits that vaccines provide, they sometimes become more convinced that they have negative consequences.
In a paper published in 2010, Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler presented the concept of the “backfire effect.” Nyhan was deeply affected by the US invasion of Iraq and sought to understand why and how the quality of political debate had fallen so low.
They conducted a quantitative study at Georgia State University and The University of Michigan by distributing fake newspaper articles with misinformation about polarizing political issues, such as claiming that the US found weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Once people had read the fake newspapers, they were presented with the corrected version of the previous article, that no such weapons were found.
Nyhan and Reifler observed that individuals who were already biased towards the more conservative camp and were in support of the war refused to believe that the second article was true. What’s more, the corrections did “strengthen misperceptions among ideological subgroups in several cases.” As a result, they stated that this was a new form of confirmation bias and termed it “the backfire effect.”
There are three different types of this bias: worldview backfire effect, familiarity backfire effect, and overkill backfire effect.
Worldview Backfire Effect
When an individual’s values or ideology shapes how they process information, it leads to them vehemently defending their views when presented with contrary information. Nyhan and Reifler’s study is a perfect example of this.
Familiarity Backfire Effect
This is when recurring counters only strengthen someone’s beliefs; the more an individual hears corrections of the belief, the more it confirms it. This happens because, when their position gets argued against, they will only focus on and remember the confirming reasons, not the disconfirming ones.
Overkill Backfire Effect
When you present someone with technical information with facts, statistics, and hard data that may be a little difficult to understand, that individual will simply choose to stick to their easier-to-understand opinions.
How to Overcome
Since the backfire effect is all about sticking to your beliefs even if you’re proven wrong, it can lead to poor decision-making and harmful outcomes. As such, it’s important to have the ability to combat it when necessary.
Here are some techniques you can try to curb it, both in others and yourself.
As with other biases, the first step is to be aware of its existence and understand why it can be bad for you. If you can idenfity it in your thought processes, this alone can help you evaluate yourself on a deeper level and alter your views when the evidence is clearly against you.
When it comes to arguments, try and approach them so that you unlock their productive side; instead of arguing for the sole purpose of proving yourself right or the other person wrong, weigh the contradictory evidence and include it in your judgment.
By knowing the backfire effect, you also know that trying to forcefully change someone else’s mind is unlikely to work. Instead, focus on your presentation and communication — how you communicate your message will determine how effectively you are able to persuade them.
For instance, rather than stating your argument like a personal attack on their views, try to formulate it in a polite, empathetic manner while pointing out the biased stance. A friendly yet affirmative approach indicates that you are really trying to provide constructive criticism and know what you are talking about.
2 Replies to “The Backfire Effect: When Facts Do the Opposite”
Regular examples of this are seen in religious cultic groups. The more the religious belief group (groupthink) is challenged, the more the member clings to the group, using religious persecution, spiritual, satanic attacks, as a justification for resistance.
Agreed, religious beliefs are probably the best examples of this.
Comments are closed.