If you think you know something, but then come into better information that differs from your original thinking, you would change your original belief, right? In fact, chances are you learned something new this week and edited your original views on the subject, or you may have offered someone in your life new information that changed their thinking. It is very normal, and actually quite healthy, to adapt our thinking when we come in to better information in life — but what happens in the instances where you introduce better information to a friend, but they ignore your help even when it is clear your information is accurate, valid, and/or correct? Enter the psychological cognitive bias known as the backfire effect.
Understanding the backfire effect
The backfire effect is a remarkable finding in the field of psychology and occurs when people who encounter new evidence that challenges their original beliefs and rather than assimilate the new data, they reject the evidence and instead strengthen their original position. Put another way, the backfire effect is witnessed when showing people valid evidence turns out to be ineffective — and in some cases actually backfires by prompting them to support their original position even more (the “backfire”). In these current times, this can be quite frustrating, especially when talking about important and serious subject matter.
The backfire effect has been scientifically studied and revealed the following:
- One study examined voting preference and 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 misconceptions about politically-charged topics found that giving people accurate information about these topics often causes them to believe in their original misconception more strongly, in cases where the new information contradicts their preexisting beliefs.
- Another study examined parents’ intent to vaccinate their children and found that giving parents who are against vaccination information showing why vaccinating their child is the best course of action, they sometimes become more likely to believe in a link between vaccination and autism.
- And yet another study that looked at people’s intention to vaccinate against the flu, found that giving people who think that the vaccine is unsafe information disproving myths on the topic, they often ended up with a reduced intent to vaccinate.
If you have been a part of a conversation discussing subjects similar to the ones just mentioned above, you already know how frustrating it can be when you realize that no information in the world is going to change this person’s view. In fact, in many cases you know that they know the new information is better, but they still remain firm while holding onto a position they know is bunk. What this means is that it is not good enough to simply have better information, but you must also “thread the needle” in nuanced ways when trying to persuade someone to change their mind. Employing debasing techniques can help, as can politeness, respect, simple examples, and listening closely when the other person speaks. Still, challenges will likely remain when you touch on hot-button subjects.
The backfire effect might be one of the more frustrating cognitive biases to encounter, and it doesn’t make much logical sense. While you would think humans would regularly “lean-in” when it comes to attaining new, factual knowledge, in too many cases today people have made their stand public, and would rather remain true to their original position than seemingly look weak by changing their thinking.