The Overkill Backfire Effect: on the Danger of Having Too Much Evidence

The Overkill Effect

 

The overkill backfire effect is a cognitive bias that causes people to reject arguments that they think are too complex, in favor of arguments that are easy for them to understand. Often, this means that past a certain point, presenting additional evidence in support of your argument can actually make people less likely to accept it.

In the following article, you will learn why people are susceptible to this effect, and how you can reduce the risk of them being influenced by it when you present an argument.

 

What causes the overkill effect

The overkill backfire effect is a cognitive bias that causes people to prefer explanations which are easy for them to understand, over explanations that are difficult to process.

Simply put, because it is more cognitively taxing to process a large number of complex arguments, the more information you present in support of your stance past a certain point, the smaller the likelihood that the person you are talking to will be able to successfully internalize that information, and the smaller the likelihood that they will agree with your overall argument. As such, while you might intuitively want to present as much evidence as possible in order to support your stance, adding a lot of arguments is often counterproductive.

For example, in one study on the topic researchers asked participants to think of reasons that could explain why a certain belief of theirs is wrong. They found that while asking people to generate only a few reasons was often effective in getting them to change their belief, asking them to generate many reasons had an opposite effect, meaning that it often caused participants to reinforce their original stance.

This is especially an issue when trying to refute common myths and misunderstandings, 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”.

 

How to avoid the overkill effect

To avoid the overkill effect, you essentially want to simplify your arguments as much as possible given the circumstances, while still presenting a cogent stance. This means that when you present your argument, you need to ensure that it is clear and concise, without any unnecessary technical jargon. Furthermore, if you’re presenting any statistical information, try to explain it in simple terms, in order to make it easier for your recipient to understand.

In addition, you should make sure to focus on only a few key points when supporting your stance. This ensures that you give your recipient enough information to convince them, without causing them to feel overwhelmed by all the new information.

Doing this also has an added advantage, since focusing on your strongest evidence when stating your argument makes it harder for your opponent to use strawman arguments against you. This is because using strawman arguments often involve cherry-picking the weaker aspects of your claim, and arguing against them as if they represent your entire stance. When you only include the strongest pieces of evidence in your argument, it makes you less vulnerable to this type of rhetoric technique.

Based on this, if you have 5 pieces of evidence in support of your stance, 3 of which are “strong” and 2 of which are “weak”, you will generally be better off discussing only the 3 “strong” points, while avoiding the weaker ones. In addition, your argument should be presented in a clear and concise manner, and if necessary, should be simplified in order to make it easily intelligible to your target audience.

 

You are also susceptible to the overkill effect

It’s important to remember that we are all human, and are therefore all 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 automatically accept the argument which is simpler and therefore intuitively appealing, without giving full consideration to the more complex arguments that you heard. Then, make sure to actually consider the complex arguments, and try to simplify them, using the same techniques that you would use if you were presenting them to someone else.

 

Summary and conclusions

  • The overkill backfire effect is a cognitive bias that causes people to reject arguments that are complex, in favor of arguments that are easy to understand.
  • This occurs because it is cognitively taxing to process a large amount of complex information, and people often reject arguments that are difficult for them to process.
  • This means that for a lot of people, once they reach their cognitive saturation point, seeing more evidence in support of a certain argument might actually reduce the likelihood of them being convinced by that argument.
  • To avoid the overkill effect, simplify your arguments as much as possible given the circumstances, and make sure to use clear language, while avoiding unnecessary technical terminology and overly-complex statistics.
  • In addition, make sure to focus on only the strongest pieces of evidence that you have, rather than mentioning all the available evidence from the start. Doing this will not only reduce the likelihood of an overkill effect, but will also make it more difficult for your opponent to use strawman arguments against you, where they focus on your weakest pieces of evidence in order to attack your overall stance.