The “Backfire” Paradox

New research on a phenomenon called backfire has revolutionary implications for communication about politics, religion, and other controversial issues.

Suppose you are talking about such an issue with someone who expresses an opinion that you know is erroneous. Wanting to be helpful, you provide factual data from a reliable source which corrects your friend’s mistake. Now, will this person:

A. Decide that he or she has been mistaken?

B. Continue to believe the same thing, but with less conviction?

C. Believe it with the same level of conviction as before?

D. Believe it even more strongly?

Paradoxically, the answer is often D. Researchers have found that presenting factual information which clearly disproves an erroneous belief may make a person affirm their false opinion even more strongly. And those who are moderately inclined to believe this opinion may become convinced that it’s true, after being shown good evidence that it’s false.

This is known as the backfire effect. Learning about this phenomenon has made some people deeply pessimistic about the possibility of using evidence to change another person’s mind. For example, I recently heard Deepak Chopra begin a speech by stating that he realized his listeners would not alter their opinions as a result of his talk.

What a depressing development! If we can’t correct each other’s misconceptions through reason and evidence, how can democracy function effectively? (And maybe that’s one reason it doesn’t.)

We’ve known for a long time that beliefs are resistant to change. But with backfire, our attempts at persuasion become not just difficult but actually counterproductive. Instead of making it more likely that the person will agree with us, our brilliant verbalizations make agreement less likely.

Researchers theorize that people become threatened when their beliefs are refuted. They respond to this sense of threat by clinging more tightly to their previous opinions

But let’s not oversimplify and overgeneralize. The backfire effect has been documented in several studies, but communication is a complex process that involves the personalities of the communicators, their relationships with each other, the setting for their conversation, what they say, how they say it, and what happens before and after they have talked. With some combination of these factors backfire occurs, but perhaps with other combinations of factors it does not.

Furthermore, at this point the backfire effect has only been well-documented in studying political conservatives. For example, scholars Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler conducted experiments in which subjects read mock news articles that included a misleading claim from a politician, followed by a correction.

One of the examples dealt with whether Iraq had weapons of mass destruction before the US invaded that country. “The percentage of conservatives agreeing with [this] statement … increased from 32% … to 64%” after the correction. ” By contrast, for non-conservatives, agreement went from 22% to 13%.” Similarly, “The percentage of conservatives agreeing with the statement that President Bush’s tax cuts have increased government revenue went from 36% to 67%” after this statement was factually disproven. “… for non-conservatives, agreement went from 31% to 28%.”

See http://www.dartmouth.edu/~nyhan/nyhan-reifler.pdf for more details.

I do not know of similar data that specifically deals with religious beliefs, but I suspect the results would be similar.

Now what we need is research into cases in which reliable evidence does correct misperceptions, and good theories about what made this possible. If anyone knows about such data, please let me know.

Roger Christan Schriner

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