Remembering to Get Back on Track

Sometimes we stumble across something that’s “invisibly obvious,” something we’ve overlooked even though it’s sitting right in front of us. Then we have one of those Duh-OH! moments – “Why did I never realize this before?”

I had one of those Duh-OHs recently, thinking about the way people tend toward self-perpetuation instead of self-correction. In particular, people perpetuate their own beliefs about politics and religion. Even if they have only a rudimentary understanding of these topics, they may block out anything that challenges their opinions. (See, for example, “When Corrections Fail: The Persistence of Political Misperceptions,”

Like many religious and psychological professionals, I have studied and taught various strategies for shifting from self-perpetuation to self-improvement. But I wish I had emphasized what now seems like an obvious idea: Establish the expectation that all of us will learn and practice specific strategies for self-correction.

Many cultural expectations are widely shared. With few exceptions, most people expect to graduate from high school or college, find gainful employment, live on their own, establish a stable love relationship, plan for retirement, and take care of their health. But we could also try to establish the cultural expectation that virtually everyone will practice self-correction techniques. This blog entry is a tiny step toward this goal.

In a recent workshop on values, participants were asked to make a new list of Ten Commandments for Twenty-First Century Living. This was one of mine:

Seek a path that brings you fulfillment and makes the world a better place. Know that you will often wander away from this path. Learn the habit of sensing when and where you are off track and putting yourself back on course.

If you do not have specific ways of noticing when you are off course, and specific ways of getting back on track, and if you do not practice these strategies regularly, you are killing the person you might otherwise become.

So how does this apply to you? What are the most important clues that warn you when you’ve lost your way? And what are your most effective strategies for self-correction?

I’ll develop this theme further in my next entry.

Roger Christan Schriner

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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 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

To subscribe to Theists & Atheists: Communication & Common Ground, click the “Follow” link on the upper left.