The overkill backfire effect is a cognitive bias that causes people to reject complex explanations that are difficult for them to process in favor of simple explanations that are easier for them to understand, and in some cases to also reinforce their belief in the simpler explanation as a consequence of having encountered the complex explanation.
For example, if someone is presented with a complicated scientific explanation for a certain phenomenon, the overkill backfire effect could cause them to reject that explanation, and reinforce their preexisting belief in a simple but incorrect myth that is easy to understand.
Accounting for this bias is important, because it means that past a certain point, presenting additional evidence in support of your argument can actually make people less likely to accept it. As such, in the following article you will learn more about the overkill backfire effect, understand why people are susceptible to it, and see how you can reduce the risk that people will experience this bias when you present them with an argument.
Why people experience the overkill backfire effect
People experience the overkill backfire effect because there is a general inherent tendency to prefer information that is simple and easy to process. Accordingly, when they are faced with two explanations for a phenomenon, one of which is significantly more difficult to process, they can end up rejecting the explanation that is difficult to process, which can cause them to reinforce their belief in the alternative, simpler explanation.
There are two main ways in which an argument can be considered complex and cognitively taxing:
- First, its content can be complex. This can happen, for example, if the argument consists of a large number of sub-arguments or if it relies on a lot of supporting evidence.
- Second, its form can be complex. This can happen, for example, if the argument’s main points are badly ordered or if the language used to convey it is difficult to understand.
In the case of the overkill backfire effect, this issue arises when the content of an argument is complex because there’s simply too much of it for the intended audience to handle. For example, the overkill backfire effect could occur if someone who could only handle 3 pieces of evidence is instead presented with 10, and ends up feeling overwhelmed and rejecting the proposed argument.
Furthermore, added complexity in terms of the form of the argument can affect how complex its content can be before people experience the overkill backfire effect. For example, people are going to struggle more with 3 highly technical and long pieces of evidence than they are with 3 simple and short pieces of evidence.
In general, this phenomenon is especially an issue when it comes to the refutation of common myths, since many of them offer a simple and compelling truth, which contrasts sharply with the large amount of complex scientific evidence needed to debunk them. As one paper on the topic states: “simple myths are more cognitively attractive than lengthy, complicated refutations”.
However, it’s also important to note that more information isn’t necessarily counterproductive, and in some cases, presenting people with more information can help a refutation attempt be more effective. Rather, the overkill effect means that in some cases, once you reach a certain amount of complexity, in terms of the amount and type of information that you present, adding more information to an argument will make it too difficult for your intended audience to understand it, which in turn will make them less likely to accept it.
Note: a related concept is parsimony, a guiding principle that suggests that all things being equal, you should prefer the simplest possible explanation for a phenomenon or the simplest possible solution to a problem. In the case of the overkill backfire effect, the principle of parsimony is misapplied, because the simplest explanation is preferred, rather than the simplest explanation which can accurately explain the phenomenon.
How to avoid the overkill backfire effect
Minimize the content of your argument
The key thing that you should to in order to reduce the likelihood that the person that you’re talking to will experience the overkill backfire effect is minimize the content of your argument as much as possible. Essentially, this means that, instead of necessarily presenting all the evidence that you have available, you should focus on presenting only a small number of key points, which consist of your strongest evidence, in order to make it easier for your listeners to process what you’re trying to say without feeling overwhelmed.
For example, if you have a total of 10 pieces of evidence, you might want to focus on your 3 strongest pieces of evidence, and avoid mentioning the other 7, at least initially.
Keep in mind, however, that there are no clear and absolute guidelines regarding how much evidence you ideally want to present, and at what points your evidence becomes too much. As such, you will have to rely primarily on your intuition and past experiences, while also paying attention to how your listeners are responding as you present more information. The optimal amount of information will vary based on a number of factors, such as the general abilities of the person that you’re talking to, how interested they are in the topic, and how much energy they have at the moment.
In addition, remember that you can always add more evidence later on if you find that it’s necessary. On the other hand, if you provide too much evidence from the start, you will often find it relatively difficult to retract that evidence later, especially if the person that you are talking to ends up feeling overwhelmed.
Finally, note that focusing on your strongest pieces of advice can also be advantageous for other reasons, such as that it makes it harder for an opponent in a debate to use strawman arguments against you, which are arguments that distort your claim in order to make it easier to attack. This is because strawman arguments often focus on the weaker aspects of your overall claim,so by including only the strongest pieces of evidence in your argument, you become you less vulnerable to this rhetoric technique.
Simplify the form of your argument
To reduce the likelihood that the person that you’re talking to will experience the overkill backfire effect, you want to simplify the form of your arguments as much as possible given the circumstances.
This means, for example, that when you present your argument, you want to ensure that it is clear and concise, and doesn’t contain any unnecessary technical jargon or obscure expression. Furthermore, if you’re presenting any statistical information, you should try to explain it in simple terms, in order to make it easier for your recipient to understand.
For example, if you are in a situation where you need to use a simple explanation, don’t say:
“SLA studies on L1 transfer during L2 acquisition show a crosslinguistic influence from the L1. For example, a recent study which examined transfer of definite and indefinite articles showed that 68.3% of the population (based on a representative sample) will experience transfer on a statistically significant level (p < .05) during L2 acquisition. Furthermore, this study also showed that the L1 transfer will occur throughout the A1–B2 CEFR range of L2 proficiency levels.”
Instead, try to avoid using complex jargon and statistics, by saying something along the lines of:
“Studies show that your native language influences you when you learn a new language. For example, a recent study which looked at the acquisition of articles, which are words like ‘the’ and ‘a’, showed that approximately two-thirds of the people learning a new language will experience a transfer effect from their native language, and that this occurs primarily for people who have not yet mastered the new language.”
Furthermore, if you find that you need to simplify this explanation even further, you can try saying something along the lines of:
“Your native language often influences you when you learn the words and grammar of a new language, but this is less likely to happen after your proficiency in the new language improves past a certain point.”
Remember that the degree to which you should simplify your arguments depends on the circumstances. As such, you would use a different explanation when talking to a random person in a bar than you would when giving a talk at an academic conference.
Simplifying your argument ensures that you present your argument in a way that the other person can easily understand, which makes them more likely to process your argument and consequently accept your stance. An added advantage of doing this is that if you start with a simple explanation, you can always add more details later on, if you see that the people you are talking to have questions or want to know more. However, if you open with an overly complex explanation from the start, people will often lose interest in the topic, and might end up mentally checking out from the conversation.
Finally, keep in mind that a simpler explanation will not necessarily be shorter than a more complex one. Sometimes, it takes more words to explain something in simple terms, especially if you end up omitting a lot of the technical terminology. This is fine, and while you should strive to be concise, your main focus should be on explaining things in a way that is easy to understand overall.
Remember that you are also susceptible to this bias
It’s important to keep in mind that you are also susceptible to the overkill effect. As such, it’s important to take the potential influence of this cognitive bias into consideration when you’re listening to arguments presented by other people.
Specifically, try to identify cases where you feel that you’re about to automatically reject a complex explanation, simply because it feels that it’s too difficult or tiresome to fully process it. Then, if possible, ask the person who’s presenting it to do so in a simpler manner.
Furthermore, you can try implementing various debiasing techniques, which could also help you avoid the overkill backfire effect. For example, you could force yourself to slow down the reasoning process, and dedicate a sufficient amount of time to trying to understand the complex explanation that you’re presented with.
Caveats about the overkill backfire effect
Though the overkill backfire effect has been mentioned in a number of scientific papers, there is relatively little empirical evidence that directly supports it. Nevertheless, there are two general types of evidence which support the concept of the overkill backfire effect.
Second, research has shown that, when it comes to debiasing, asking people to come up with a smaller number of debiasing thoughts can be more effective than asking them to come up with a large number of thoughts.
For example, when it comes to asking people to come up with potential reasons why they might do badly on an exam, in an attempt to reduce their overconfidence, asking them to think of 3 possible reasons proved effective, while asking them to think of 12 reasons proved ineffective. Similarly, when it comes to asking people to come up with potential reasons about how a certain historical event could have turned other than it did, in an attempt to reduce their hindsight bias, asking them to think of 2 reasons proved effective, while asking them to think of 10 reasons ended up backfiring, and increasing their hindsight bias.
However, research which examined the overkill backfire effect directly, when it comes to how the use of more arguments affects refutation attempts, has failed to find an “ironic effect of counterargument number” (i.e. an overkill effect). Specifically, the study found that providing people with a relatively large number of arguments (4–6) led to equal or better belief reduction than providing people with a relatively small number of arguments (2).
This doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s no overkill backfire effect. For example, it’s possible that this bias only arises when a larger number of arguments is used, or when the arguments used are more complex. Furthermore, it’s possible that this bias only arises in certain situations but not in others or only among specific populations.
This suggests that whether or not the overkill backfire effect will occur depends on various factors, such as the people involved, the topic being discussed, and the nature of the counterarguments being provided.
Overall, it’s unclear in which situations the overkill backfire effect will play a role, and in which situations it won’t. As such, you want to keep in mind the possibility that this bias could play a role during refutation attempts, and use your assessment of any given situation in order to decide how, and if, to account for it.
Related cognitive biases
In addition to the overkill backfire effect, there are two other types of backfire effects:
- The first is the worldview backfire effect, which is a cognitive bias that causes people who encounter evidence which challenges their beliefs to reject that evidence, and to strengthen their support of their original stance.
- The second is the familiarity backfire effect, which is a cognitive bias that causes people to remember misinformation better, and to remember it as being true, after they are shown corrective information which is supposed to debunk it, as a result of the increased exposure to that misinformation.
Summary and conclusions
- The overkill backfire effect is a cognitive bias that causes people to reject complex explanations that are difficult for them to process in favor of simple explanations that are easier for them to understand, and in some cases to also reinforce their belief in the simpler explanation as a consequence of having encountered the complex explanation.
- Essentially, the overkill backfire effect means that, past a certain point, seeing additional evidence in support of a certain stance could make people less likely to accept that stance.
- People experience the overkill backfire effect because there is a general inherent tendency to prefer information that is simple and easy to process.
- The key thing that you should to in order to reduce the likelihood that the person that you’re talking to will experience the overkill backfire effect is minimize the content of your argument as much as possible, by focusing on your key pieces of evidence.
- In addition, you also want to simplify the form of your arguments as much as possible given the circumstances, meaning, for example, that you should avoid using complex technical jargon or obscure language, which makes it harder for people to process your arguments.