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.
This is because when people encounter evidence which should cause them to doubt their beliefs, they often reject the new evidence, and start supporting their original stance even more strongly. This cognitive bias is known as the backfire effect.
Examples for the backfire effect
Instances of the backfire effect have been observed in a large number of scientific studies, which looked at various scenarios:
- One study examined people’s opinions about federal welfare programs. The researchers found that despite the majority of the people being highly misinformed about the nature and scope of these programs, being given actual facts about them did not lead to people changing their opinions on a significant scale (though in this case, the facts were just useless, and did not directly backfire). Interestingly, the study also found that the people who were the least informed about these topics, often expressed the highest degree of confidence in their answers.
- 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 parents’ intent to vaccinate their children, found that when parents who are against vaccinating were given information showing why vaccinating their child is the best course of action, they sometimes became more likely to believe in a link between vaccination and autism. Furthermore, even when these parents’ misconceptions regarding the vaccination-autism link were reduced, the information still lead to a decreased intent to vaccinate their children. (Note that this phenomenon has been observed for other type of vaccination decisions, such as choosing to vaccinate against the season 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 phenomenon occurs as a result of the process through which people argue against information that challenges their beliefs. Specifically, if people argue against unwelcome information strongly enough, they end up with more arguments to support their cause, which in their minds align with their preexisting beliefs. This causes them to believe that there is more support for their stance than there was before they were presented with the unwelcome evidence, which can lead to them supporting their original viewpoint more extremely than they did before.
How understanding the backfire effect can help
Understanding the role of the backfire effect in people’s thought process can help you engage with them in a more effective way: As we saw earlier in the study on people’s misconceptions about federal welfare programs, simply presenting people with facts doesn’t usually help change their opinions. However, in a follow-up study, the researchers discovered that tweaking the way they presented the facts helped mitigate this effect.
In the follow-up study, 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. In this case, people often had to process the notion that not only is the federal spending lower than they thought, but it is also lower than the portion of the budget that they believed should be allocated to welfare. Asking people to explicitly list how much they believe should be spent on welfare lead 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 presenting new information to people in an effort to change their stance, you need to display this information in a non-confrontational manner, that allows people to 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, you need to remember that it’s not just about what you say, but it’s also about how you say it. Attacking the other person for having the ‘wrong’ opinion, no matter how misguided it might be, is unlikely to work.
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 judgement, and of how you process new information that you are given. However, keep in mind that being reducing this bias in practice isn’t an easy thing to do. Essentially, you would need to fight against this 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.
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. Studies (such as this one and this one), 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, as 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 simply here to serve as a reminder on how complex human psychology is, and on how research results are rarely clear-cut.
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 many scenarios, such as people supporting a political candidate more strongly after negative information about him is released.
- The backfire effect occurs because when people argue against unwelcome information strongly enough, they end up with more arguments that support their cause, which in their mind align with their preexisting stance.
- If you’re trying to communicate effectively with someone, you can mitigate this effect by presenting the information in a way that allows the other person to reach the conclusion that you want them to reach by themselves, based on the information that they receive.
- There is variability in terms of when this effect appears and when it doesn’t. However, since this is difficult to predict, it’s better to act under the assumption that it will play a role in people’s decision-making process.