In a perfectly rational world, people who encounter evidence which challenges their beliefs, would first evaluate this evidence, and then adjust their beliefs accordingly. However, in reality this is seldom the case.
Often, when people encounter evidence that should cause them to doubt their beliefs, they reject this evidence, and strengthen their support for their original stance. This occurs due to a cognitive bias known as the backfire effect, and the following article will show you when and why this bias influences people, and how understanding it can benefit you.
Examples of the backfire effect
Instances of the backfire effect have been observed in a large number of scientific studies, which looked at various scenarios:
- A study which examined voting preference showed that introducing people to negative information about a political candidate that they favor, often causes them to increase their support for that candidate.
- A study which examined misconceptions about politically-charged topics (such as tax cuts and stem-cell research), found that giving people accurate information about these topics often causes them to believe in their original misconception more fervently, in cases where the new information contradicts their preexisting beliefs.
- A study which examined parents’ intent to vaccinate their children, found that when parents who are against vaccinating are given information showing why vaccinating their child is the best course of action, they sometimes become more likely to believe in a link between vaccination and autism. Furthermore, even when these parents’ misconceptions regarding the vaccination-autism link are reduced, the information still leads to a decreased intent to vaccinate their children (a phenomenon that has also been observed for other types of vaccination decisions, such as choosing to vaccinate against the seasonal flu).
What causes the backfire effect
The backfire effect is essentially a type of confirmation bias, which is a cognitive bias that causes people to search for, interpret, and recall information in a way that confirms their preexisting beliefs.
This effect occurs as a result of the process through which people argue against information that challenges their beliefs. Essentially, when people argue against unwelcome information strongly enough, they end up with more arguments to support their stance. This causes them to believe that there is more proof in support of their viewpoint than there was before they were presented with the unwelcome evidence, which can lead them to support their original stance more strongly than they did before.
How understanding the backfire effect can benefit you
Understanding the role of the backfire effect in other people’s thought process can help you engage with them better. One study, for example, examined people’s opinions about federal welfare programs. The researchers found that the majority of people were highly-misinformed about the nature and scope of these programs, and that interestingly enough, the people who were the least-informed about them generally expressed the highest degree of confidence in their knowledge.
Furthermore, the researchers found that presenting people with facts about these welfare programs did little to change people’s opinion about them. However, in a follow-up study, the researchers discovered that tweaking the way they presented the facts made people respond more positively to the new evidence.
In this follow-up, people were first asked to estimate the percentage of the national budget that is allocated towards welfare. Then, they were also asked what percent of the budget they believe should be spent on welfare.
Posing these questions back-to-back lead participants to contrast their perception of reality with their preferred level of spending. Then, participants were told which portion of the budget is spent on welfare in reality. This meant that most of them had to process the fact that not only is the federal-spending lower than they thought, but it is also lower than the portion of the budget that they believe should be allocated to welfare. Asking people to explicitly list how much they believe should be spent on welfare led to them being willing to change their opinion when they later learned that this number is higher than the actual budget.
For you, this means that when you’re talking to people in an effort to change their stance on something, you need to remember that it’s not just about the information that you give them, but also about how you present it. As such, you need to display the new information in a non-confrontational manner, that allows people to internalize and accept the new facts, by reaching the conclusions that you want them to reach themselves. That is, if you actually want to get your point across, attacking the other person for having the ‘wrong’ opinion, no matter how misguided it might be, is unlikely to work, since it will probably just put them in a defensive mindset, where they’re not willing to accept new evidence.
Understanding the role of the backfire effect in your own thought process can also help you make more rational decisions. This necessitates being critical of your judgment, and of how you process new information. Essentially, you need to fight against this effect as you would against any other form of the confirmation bias: by being more critical of arguments which support your beliefs, and by not automatically discarding arguments which provide evidence against them.
You can use the same technique that you saw above for mitigating the backfire effect in other people on yourself. This means that when you encounter new information which contradicts your beliefs, you should try and consider its validity and implications, instead of trying to immediately explain why it’s wrong.
The backfire effect isn’t always there
While the backfire effect plays a significant role in how people process new information, that doesn’t mean that it affects everyone all the time, as studies show that there are a lot of cases where the backfire effect doesn’t influence people’s thought process.
This doesn’t necessarily contradict other findings, since even studies that show support for the existence of the backfire effect demonstrate that its influence is highly variable. Furthermore, since it’s difficult to predict when the backfire effect will play a role, it’s better to generally assume that it will, and to act accordingly. This disclaimer is only here to remind you that human psychology is complex, and that cognitive biases rarely affect people in a clear-cut, easily-predictable way.
Summary and conclusions
- The backfire effect is a phenomenon where people who encounter evidence that contradicts their beliefs, strengthen their support for those beliefs, despite the new evidence to the contrary.
- This effect has been observed in various scenarios, such as people supporting a political candidate more strongly after negative information about that candidate is released.
- The backfire effect is a type of confirmation bias, that occurs because when people argue strongly against unwelcome information, they end up with more arguments that support their original stance.
- If you’re trying to explain to someone the issues with their stance, you can mitigate the backfire effect by presenting new information in a way that allows the other person to reach the conclusion that you want them to reach by themself, based on the evidence that they encounter.
- There is variability in terms of when people are influenced by this effect, but since this variability is difficult to predict, it’s better to act under the assumption that the backfire effect will play a role in people’s decision-making process.