The familiarity backfire effect is a cognitive bias that causes people to remember misinformation better, and to remember it as being true, after they’re shown corrective information that’s supposed to debunk it, as a result of the increased exposure to the misinformation.
For example, if someone is shown evidence that disproves a certain health-related myth, the familiarity backfire effect means that after a week passes, they might forget the corrective evidence, but remember the myth itself and believe that it’s true.
The familiarity backfire effect can play a role in various domains, and particularly when it comes to the refutation of pseudoscientific theories and political conspiracies, so it’s important to understand it. As such, in the following article you will learn more about the familiarity backfire effect, understand why people experience it, and see what you can do to avoid it.
Examples of the familiarity backfire effect
A simple example of the familiarity backfire effect is someone who repeatedly hears warnings that a certain pseudoscientific theory is false, but ends up forgetting the warnings and only remembering the theory itself and believing that it’s true.
In addition, there are many other examples of how the familiarity backfire effect can influence people. For instance:
- One study found that warning people that certain health-related claims are false does help people understand that those claims are false in the short term, but sometimes also increases the likelihood that they’ll remember those claims as being true after a few days have passed.
- Another study found that giving people health-related warnings about what not to do sometimes ends with them remembering those warnings as being instructions regarding what they should do, after some time has passed.
Finally, for an example of how the familiarity backfire effect can play a role in a political context, consider the following dialogue, which involves one candidate attacking another during a debate, by claiming that their opponent spent a lot of money on personal expenses:
Candidate A: just last year, you spent over $100,000 on personal travel expenses, which is an outrageous amount.
Candidate B: the idea that I spent $100,000 on travel expenses is ridiculous. You must be making stuff up, because I don’t know where you got the $100,000 figure from.
Here, the second candidate attempts to refute the accusation against them. However, the way they repeat the accusation (and specifically the $100,000 figure) can backfire, and make the audience more likely to remember it, and to remember it as being true.
Note: the familiarity backfire effect is considered to be one of the main contributing factors to belief perseverance and the continued influence effect of misinformation, in which people continue to believe wrong information even encountering a credible refutation of it.
Why people experience the familiarity backfire effect
Though there is no single clear cause for the familiarity backfire effect, this phenomenon can be attributed to a number of primary psychological mechanisms.
First, increased familiarity with a statement can make it easier for people to process that statement and access the information that it contains. Essentially, each time people hear or read the statement that’s being debunked they become more familiar with it, which makes it easier for them to process it (by increasing its processing fluency). Since people prefer to accept explanations that are easy for them to process and access from a cognitive perspective, this increased familiarity increases the likelihood that they will believe that the statement is true.
Second, increased familiarity with a statement can make it more likely that it will be remembered. This means that every time people are exposed to a statement, they become more likely to remember it, but not necessarily to remember whether it’s true or false, especially if it’s presented to them in different contexts each time and without a proper emphasis on it falseness.
Finally, increased familiarity with a statement can cause people to feel that they have heard this statement before. Since people tend to believe that true statements have a higher probability of being repeated than false statements, repeatedly hearing about the debunked misinformation can make people more likely to believe that it’s true. Essentially, since people are generally more frequently exposed to widely-accepted beliefs than to fringe ones, familiarity with a certain belief or statement signals social consensus toward it, and provides it with familiarity-based credibility.
Overall, the familiarity backfire effect can be attributed to a number of causes, and primarily to increased exposure to misinformation making it easier for people to process, access, and remember it, while also making them more likely to assume that it is widely accepted.
Caveats about the familiarity backfire effect
There are two main caveats about the familiarity backfire effect that are important to take into account.
First, there is substantial variability in terms of how and when the familiarity backfire effect occurs. For example, one study found evidence of the familiarity backfire effect in older adults (above the age of 65), but not in younger adults (between the ages of 18-27). Furthermore, this study found that people did not experience this study immediately after the initial debunking, but rather only after some time has passed.
Second, a number of studies have found only weak evidence or no evidence at all of the familiarity backfire effect, in a variety of circumstances. This ties in to evidence that calls into question similar phenomena, and especially the worldview backfire effect, which is a cognitive bias that causes people who encounter evidence that challenges their beliefs to reject that evidence, and to strengthen their support of their original stance.
However, there is nevertheless support for the general mechanisms underlying the familiarity backfire effect. For example, even outside the context of debunking, people tend to develop a positive attitude toward things as they become familiar with them through repeated exposure, as a result of a cognitive bias known as the mere-exposure effect (or the familiarity principle).
Furthermore, there is evidence in support of several closely related phenomena. The most notable of these is the illusory truth effect (or the illusion of truth effect), whereby exposure to information makes people more likely to believe that it is truthful. Similarly, another notably related phenomenon is the reiteration effect, whereby repeating a statement increases the degree to which people believe it.
Finally, note that even studies that did not find evidence of the familiarity backfire effect often suggest that increased familiarity with misinformation can be an issue. For example, one study states:
“… the present study suggests that exposure to a correction does not cause familiarity backfire relative to a no-exposure control even with novel claims, and thus corrections do not seem to spread misinformation to new audiences easily.
That being said, recommendations to avoid unnecessary misinformation repetition should arguably remain in place—while one repetition in the context of a correction may have benefits for correction salience, additional repetition of the misinformation runs the risk of enhancing familiarity without any added benefit.
Moreover, while we have demonstrated that corrections do not backfire when it comes to specific beliefs about a proposition, one needs to differentiate this from the over-arching framing that is achieved by stating something that is false… For example, a government official stating that there are ‘no plans for a carbon tax’ may achieve a reduction in the specific belief that a carbon tax rollout is being prepared, but at the same time using the word ‘tax’ may make people who oppose new taxes for ideological or pragmatic reasons think about climate change as a threat rather than an opportunity… Therefore, communicators should perhaps focus their considerations more on the framing of their corrections, as repeating the misinformation frame might do more damage than repetition of the misinformation itself.”
— From “Can corrections spread misinformation to new audiences? Testing for the elusive familiarity backfire effect” (Ecker, Lewandowsky, & Chadwick, 2020)
Overall, there is substantial variability in terms of how and when the familiarity backfire effect occurs, and a number of studies have found only weak evidence or no evidence at all of the familiarity backfire effect. Nevertheless, there is general support for a number of related phenomena and cognitive mechanisms, and it’s generally recommended to avoid repeating misinformation unnecessarily, since increased familiarity with it is likely to be problematic in some cases.
How to avoid the familiarity backfire effect
There are several things that you can do to avoid causing the familiarity backfire effect when you debunk misinformation.
First, you should keep in mind two main guidelines whenever you engage in debunking:
- Focus on the facts that you’re presenting, rather than on the misinformation that you’re trying to debunk.
- Avoid repeating the misinformation unnecessarily.
Second, there are several additional guidelines that you can also use to guide your debunking:
- Start with the facts. That is, when you begin the debunking attempt, you should open with the facts, and only then introduce the misinformation.
- Before presenting misinformation, identify it as such. When you’re about to present misinformation, explicitly warn people that the information that they’re abou to see is false, and potentially also explain why this information can be misleading and why people promote it in the first place.
- Follow misinformation with corrective information. After presenting misinformation, follow it up immediately with corrective information, to put the focus on the facts and help them stick in people’s minds.
For example, let’s say that you want to debunk the idea that the Earth is flat. To avoid causing the familiarity backfire effect, you should focus on showing that the Earth is a different shape, rather than on stating that it’s not flat. Furthermore, while you will likely need to reference the original myth in your debunking attempt, you should do so as little as possible, and whenever you do, you should emphasize that this myth is wrong.
In addition to these guidelines, which are aimed at avoiding the familiarity backfire effect in particular, there are several other things that you can benefit from doing during your debunking.
First, when debunking misinformation, you should make the facts clear and easy to remember. This means, for example, that you should generally avoid simply repeating misinformation and then negating it by saying that it’s not true, since this makes it easy for people to get confused and remember only the misinformation, while forgetting the negation. If you must use negation, you should emphasize it as much as possible, using means that are appropriate to the medium that you’re using. For instance, in writing, you could capitalize all the letters in the negation word, or you can modify the phrasing so that it only fits a negating statement (e.g. “…this is NOT AT ALL what the scientists said…”).
Furthermore, you should make the corrective information as easy to understand as possible, while taking your target audience into account. This increases the likelihood that people will respond well to your debunking attempt, since, as we saw earlier, making an explanation easier for people to understand makes it more likely that they will accept it as true. This is especially important when you’re prone to using complex scientific explanations to debunk simple myths, since those simple myths can often be more appealing to people from a cognitive perspective, which means that people are more likely to believe them.
In addition, to further reduce the likelihood that people will experience the familiarity backfire effect, you can also use general debiasing techniques, such as improving the decision-making environment and increasing people’s involvement in the reasoning process.
Finally, it’s important to remember that you too might experience the familiarity backfire effect. You can reduce the likelihood that this will happen by using similar techniques as you would use to reduce this cognitive bias in others. For example, if you’re shown that a certain health-related belief that you have is wrong, you can try to focus on the corrective information in your memory, and make sure that it sticks out to you more than the original misinformation.
Overall, to avoid the familiarity backfire effect, you should start with the facts and focus on them, avoid repeating misinformation unnecessarily, clearly identify misinformation as such, and immediately follow misinformation with corrective information. In addition, you should make the facts clear, easy to understand, and easy to remember, and you can also use general debiasing techniques, such as increasing people’s involvement in the reasoning process.
Summary and conclusions
- The familiarity backfire effect is a cognitive bias that causes people to remember misinformation better, and to remember it as being true, after they’re shown corrective information that’s supposed to debunk it, as a result of the increased exposure to the misinformation.
- For example, if someone is shown evidence that disproves a certain health-related myth, the familiarity backfire effect means that after a week passes, they might forget the corrective evidence, but remember the myth itself and believe that it’s true.
- There is substantial variability in terms of how and when the familiarity backfire effect occurs, and a number of studies have found weak evidence or no evidence of it in some cases, but it nevertheless generally recommended to take its possible occurrence into account when debunking information.
- To avoid the familiarity backfire effect, you should start with the facts and focus on them, avoid repeating misinformation unnecessarily, clearly identify misinformation as such, and immediately follow misinformation with corrective information.
- To further reduce the likelihood of the familiarity backfire effect, you should make the facts clear, easy to understand, and easy to remember, and you can also use general debiasing techniques, such as increasing people’s involvement in the reasoning process.