You’re not going to convince people they’re wrong with facts alone.
It just won’t happen.
In fact, you’re more likely to strengthen their beliefs by trying to convince them their wrong.
Yep! That’s right. Challenging their beliefs with contradictory evidence will have the opposite effect of what you intended.
It’s what’s called “The Backfire Effect.” And it’s one of many reasons why facts and logic alone aren’t enough to convince someone their wrong. Throwing links, articles, and quotes at them isn’t enough.
What is the Backfire Effect?
The Backfire Effect involves how you view information when it comes to you.
Unlike confirmation bias, which deals with information you look for, the backfire effect deals with information that finds you. But both shield your beliefs against contradictory information.
When you’re presented with information that contradicts a strongly held belief, the backfire effect states that you will likely dismiss the contradictory information, subsequently strengthening your beliefs even more.
David McRaney, founder of YouAreNotSoSmart, describes this process as a subconscious shield around your beliefs:
“Once something is added to your collection of beliefs, you protect it from harm. You do it instinctively and unconsciously when confronted with attitude-inconsistent information.”
How does it Affect Your Reasoning & Logic?
The backfire effect is how conspiracy theorists can survive so long despite being inundated with facts that disprove their delusions.
How can someone think the holocaust or the moon landing never happened?
All it takes is for that belief to take hold, and every contradictory piece of information becomes proof that the conspiracy is true. The information you’d assume (hope?) would convince them their wrong ends up becoming a part of the conspiracy.
“That video is fake. It’s all created by the government to fool you.”
Moving away from conspiracy nuts, a 1992 study shows the power of the backfire effect when dealing with information that doesn’t fit our prescribed narrative:
“In 1992, Peter Ditto and David Lopez conducted a study in which subjects dipped little strips of paper into cups filled with saliva. The paper wasn’t special, but the psychologists told half the subjects the strips would turn green if he or she had a terrible pancreatic disorder and told the other half it would turn green if they were free and clear. For both groups, they said the reaction would take about 20 seconds. The people who were told the strip would turn green if they were safe tended to wait much longer to see the results, far past the time they were told it would take. When it didn’t change colors, 52 percent retested themselves. The other group, the ones for whom a green strip would be very bad news, tended to wait the 20 seconds and move on. Only 18 percent retested.” (source)
Dealing With Backfire Effect in Your Life
So, are there ways to mitigate the subconscious influence of the backfire effect? There are several practices that do help with this—the easiest is to avoid relying on over-emotional stories. Even if it’s a view you agree with (especially then!) don’t accept a story on its own.
Let’s look at welfare for example: Ronald Reagan used to tell this story about the “welfare queen” he had met. According to Reagan, this lady was scamming the welfare system. She was said to have 80 names, 30 addresses and 12 Social Security cards…and drove a Cadillac.
Now, the story was never corroborated. The welfare queen was never found. But the story was believed nonetheless. It backed up people’s views of welfare and those who took advantage of it. It routinely angered audiences. It provided them with that emotional backing.
Stories like those pervert the reality of the issue. It’s what’s called a narrative script: these are stories that backup your views and opinions. They give you permission to feel the way you do about a particular issue. They’re inherently emotional.
Regardless of the truthfulness of such stories, no issue should be judged on it.
Stories aren’t logic. They can only communicate logic (or the lack thereof). Further, when used in this manner, stories steal the character of an issue and oversimplify it, so that all discussions of that issue then revolve around that one iconic example instead.
Look at the controversy over Obama’s birth certificate. What happened when he released his birth certificate back in 2011? It didn’t shut up the birthers. They just got louder.
Don’t rely on stories as the sole basis for your beliefs, and always analyze why you’re not believing certain information. Make an effort to read opposing pieces and find information that contradicts your own.
Never assume that your views are inherently right, or your opponents are obviously wrong.
Dealing With Backfire Effect in Others
Whenever I talk about the Syrian refugees, the issue of potential terrorists always comes up. This isn’t an issue of a narrative blinding their judgment, it’s what happens when you try to push a myriad of sources in someone’s face hoping they’ll see “the light.”
What happens when I present the facts that less than 10 Syrian refugees (and refugees in general) have ever been connected to or tried for terrorism? Many ignore it, opting instead to point out that any potential threat is enough to shun tens of thousands of refugees.
Despite evidence to the contrary, anti-Syrian refugee Americans will still claim the danger is real and worth keeping them out. I can send all the sources I can find to convince them, but they’ll ignore it, or at worse it’ll strengthen their views.
Dealing with backfire effects in others is always a struggle. It’s frustrating.
The unfortunate thing about the backfire effect in others is that it eventually affects you:
“When you start to pull out facts and figures, hyperlinks and quotes, you are actually making the opponent feel even surer of his position than before you started the debate. As he matches your fervor, the same thing happens in your skull. The backfire effect pushes both of you deeper into your original beliefs.”
It’s like that scene in the Fellowship of the Ring when Gandalf defeats the balrog. He defeats the satanic mass of fire and darkness, but it ends up grabbing and dragging him down with it.
The Backfire effect is a balrog. And that punk will drag you down with it.
So it’s best just to avoid throwing links and studies at people over the internet and in face-to-face. Opt instead for discussing the issue with them. Try to understand where they’re coming from, and go from there.
Standing on the opposite side of the fence yelling at the other guy until he gives up is no way to go about convincing people your side is best.
Conclusion: Stop Trying to Disprove a Hypothesis with Another Hypothesis
“It does take great maturity to understand that the opinion we are arguing for is merely the hypothesis we favor, necessarily imperfect, probably transitory, which only very limited minds can declare to be a certainty or a truth.” ~ Milan Kundera
You might think your views are perfectly based in reality and facts, but nobody’s ever are.
As Milan makes apparent above, we’re all arguing for the hypothesis we find true.
Hypotheses aren’t facts, they’re assumptions. It’s a proposed explanation of how something works based on limited information.
What the backfire effect does is blind us to the reality that it exists. All of our ideas, views, opinions; they’re all hypotheses. Some of them might be better assumed than others, but you don’t have a monopoly on which beliefs are truth.
This is why you can’t rely on facts and logic alone to win people over. Heck, you shouldn’t even assume you’ve got all the facts and logic right yourself.
In many cases, what is logical is incredibly subjective, and what is factual is shrouded in controversy.
Don’t shield your mind off to contradictory evidence. Even if you don’t accept it, it will still benefit your subconscious.
Each contradiction to your currently held beliefs is a reminder that you don’t have it all figured out, and neither does the other guy. So why not focus on understanding each other’s positions, instead of trying to disprove a hypothesis with another hypothesis.
So, what’s your thoughts on the Backfire Effect? Have you seen it materialize in your own arguments? Have you tried to avoid it and focus on discussions? Leave your comments below.