The Familiarity Backfire Effect: Why Debunking a Myth Can Make People Believe It

Familiarity Backfire Effect

 

The familiarity backfire effect is a cognitive bias that causes people to remember a myth as true, after they are shown information which is meant to prove that it’s false.

Since the familiarity backfire effect plays a crucial role in how people respond to refutations of pseudoscientific theories and conspiracies, it’s important to understand it. In the following article, you will learn more about this cognitive bias, understand why people experience it, and see what you can do in order to debunk myths in a way that accounts for it.

 

What is the familiarity backfire effect

The familiarity backfire effect is a cognitive bias that causes people to remember a myth better, and to remember it as being true, after they are shown information which is supposed to debunk it.

Essentially, this means that if someone is shown information that proves that a certain myth is false, then after some time passes they are often more likely to remember the myth itself, rather than the information which disproves it. Furthermore, they are also more likely to believe that the myth is true, despite being shown information which proves that it isn’t.

The familiarity backfire effect plays a role in people’s thought process whenever they are exposed to information which is meant to correct some prior belief of theirs. As such, it can affect people not only when it comes to myths, but also when it comes to other types of misinformation, such as pseudoscientific theories or political conspiracy-theories.

For example, showing people data which proves that a certain alternative-medicine treatment doesn’t work, can often cause people to remember that treatment as being effective, after some time passes from the debunking attempt.

The familiarity backfire effect is therefore one of the main contributing factors to the continued influence effect of misinformation, which occurs when people continue to believe in inaccurate information even after being presented with a credible refutation of it.

Note: since the familiarity backfire effect represents a phenomenon where an attempt to change someone’s opinion by providing them with corrective information ends up backfiring, it’s considered to be a type of a backfire effect, as is evident in its name.

 

Examples of the familiarity backfire effect

There are many examples of how the familiarity backfire effect influences people’s thought process. Many of the research studies which examined this phenomenon focused on the topic of personal health, as in the following two examples:

  • One study found that presenting people with false health-related claims while stating that those claims are false does help people understand that those claims are false in the short term, but increases the likelihood that they will remember those false claims as true after a few days have passed.
  • Another study found that when people are given health-related warnings about what not to do, after some time has passed they often end up remembering those warnings as instructions on what they should do.

The familiarity backfire effect can, of course, play a role in other domains beyond personal health, and it can essentially influence people’s thinking in any situation which involves a debunking attempt.

For example, consider the following political situation, where one candidate attacks another one by claiming that they spend too much 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 him, but the way he does it can actually end up reinforcing the accusation. Specifically, the fact that he repeats the $100,000 figure increases people’s familiarity with it, which increases the likelihood that they will remember it, and believe that it’s true.

 

Why people experience the familiarity backfire effect

There are several cognitive mechanisms which explain why people experience the familiarity backfire effect.

First, increased familiarity with a statement makes it easier for people to process that statement. Essentially, each time people hear or read the statement which is being debunked they become more familiar with it, which makes it easier for them to process.

Since people prefer to accept explanations which are easy for them to process from a cognitive perspective, this increased familiarity increases the chance that they will view that statement as being true.

Secondly, increased familiarity with a statement causes 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 compared to false statements, repeatedly hearing about the debunked theory makes people more likely to believe that it’s true.

Essentially, since people are more frequently exposed to widely-accepted beliefs than to fringe ones, familiarity with a certain belief or statement signals social consensus towards it, and provides it with familiarity-based credibility.

Finally, people’s imperfect memory sometimes causes them to remember only the information being debunked, rather than the debunking attempt itself. This means that the corrective information ends up being forgotten, and so the debunking attempt ends up only reminding people of the information that it was meant to debunk in the first place.

This often occurs because people find it easier to remember simple information, and so the easy-to-understand myths tend to stick in people’s memory over time, while the complex scientific explanations which are necessary in order to debunk them tend to be forgotten.

Note: in general, people tend to develop a positive attitude towards things that they become familiar with through repeated exposure even outside the context of debunking, as a result of a cognitive bias which is known as the mere-exposure effect.

 

How to avoid the familiarity backfire effect

So far, we saw what the familiarity backfire effect is, why it’s a problem, and why people experience it.

There are several things that you can do in order to reduce the impact that this cognitive bias has on people, which will increase the effectiveness of your debunking attempts. First, there are two main guidelines that you should keep in mind with regards to how you should conduct the debunking process:

  • You should focus on the facts. Throughout the debunking attempt, you should remember to focus on the new facts that you’re presenting as much as possible, rather than on the misinformation that you’re trying to debunk, in order to ensure that this is the information that people will remember.
  • You should not repeat the misinformation any more than necessary. Though it is often necessary to address the misinformation itself during the debunking attempt, you should not reference it any more than is necessary, since doing so could increase people’s familiarity with it.

In addition, there are several guidelines that you should keep in mind with regards to how you should structure the debunking process:

  • Start with the facts. When you start the debunking attempt, you should begin with the facts, and only then introduce the misinformation.
  • Before presenting the misinformation, identify it as such. Before you mention the myth itself, you should explicitly state that the information that you are about to show is false, and also explain why it can be misleading, and why misinformers promote it in the first place.
  • After presenting the misinformation, follow up immediately with corrective information. The debunking attempt must immediately follow the description of the original misinformation, to ensure that the focus isn’t on the misinformation, and to ensure that information pertaining to the original myth is replaced in the person’s memory by the real facts.
  • The corrective information must include an explanation of the phenomenon. When you present the new facts, make sure to include a reasonable explanation for the phenomenon, which can replace the original myth as a valid explanation in people’s mind.

For example, let’s say that you want to explain to someone that Earth is not flat, while avoiding the risk of causing the familiarity backfire effect.

When it comes to your debunking attempt, your focus should generally be on explaining why the Earth is a sphere, rather than on explaining why the belief that the Earth is flat is wrong.

Furthermore, while you do need to reference the original myth in your debunking attempt, you should do so as little as possible, and emphasize that this myth is wrong, while ensuring that people understand the explanation which proves this.

In addition, you can also use general debiasing techniques, such as improving the decision-making environment and increasing people’s involvement in the reasoning process, which could further help reduce the likelihood that people will experience the familiarity backfire effect.

Finally, an important thing to keep in mind is that you should try to make your explanations as easy to understand and as accessible as possible, given your target audience. This makes it likelier 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 crucial, since simple myths are often more appealing to people from a cognitive perspective than the complex scientific explanations which are needed in order to debunk them. Therefore, by using simpler explanations, you make it more likely that people will listen to you and accept what you have to say.

 

Reducing your own familiarity backfire effect

It’s important to remember that we’re all vulnerable to the familiarity backfire effect, and that you might also suffer from this cognitive bias.

Though it’s difficult to reduce the likelihood that you will experience this bias by yourself, you can try and identify cases where you are vulnerable to it by looking for situations where you are more focused on the information that someone is attempting to debunk, than on the debunking attempt itself.

If you notice that this is happening, you can try to shift the focus back to the debunking attempt, even if you initially think that it’s incorrect, since doing so will allow you to assess it in a more rational manner in the long run.

You can also use the techniques that we saw above, in order to improve the way that the corrective information is being conveyed to you. However, this is only a realistic option in some cases, and not something that you can do in all situations.

Overall, the best way to reduce the likelihood that you will experience the familiarity backfire effect is to use general debiasing techniques, such as slowing down your reasoning process or improving your decision-making environment. These techniques are often relatively simple to implement, and can allow you to process new information in a way that enables you to make more rational decisions.

 

The familiarity backfire effect isn’t always there

As in the case of the general backfire effect, which only affects people’s thought process some of the time, there are also situations where the familiarity backfire effect doesn’t affect people’s thinking on a significant scale.

One study, for example, found that although refutation attempts that repeated the myth that they were debunking were less effective than those which focused on affirming the corrective facts, these attempts still worked overall, when it came to reducing people’s belief in misinformation.

This suggests that even though you should be wary of the familiarity backfire effect when it comes to devising refutation attempts, you should also be realistic when it comes to estimating its scope, and when trying to assess how much it affects people.

 

Summary and conclusions

  • The familiarity backfire effect is a cognitive bias that causes people to remember a myth better, and to remember it as being true, after they are shown information which is meant to debunk it.
  • This means that if someone is shown information that disproves a certain myth, their exposure to that myth could cause them to remember it better in the long run, and to believe that it is true.
  • For example, one study found that showing people false health-related claims and identifying them as such does help them understand that those claims are false in the short term, but ends up increasing the likelihood that they will remember those claims as true after a few days pass.
  • People experience the familiarity backfire effect because increased familiarity with a statement increases its perceived credibility and makes it easier for people to process it.
  • To reduce the likelihood that people will experience the familiarity backfire effect as a result of a debunking attempt, you should start with the facts and focus on them, offer an alternative explanation to the myth, identify misinformation as such and avoid repeating it unless necessary, and always follow up misinformation with corrective information.