Problem

Mara is a typical teenager who happens to think that shark attacks happen relatively frequently to beachgoers, and that these attacks are mostly fatal. However, her marine biology teacher, Mr. Stuart, tells her this is not true: a person is more likely to be killed by a coconut falling from a palm tree than by a shark. You’d probably think that after hearing this new information, Mara would discard her previous faulty beliefs and be convinced that shark attacks are really quite rare, and shark killings even rarer. However, Mara actually becomes even more convinced that her original belief was correct: death by shark is a common occurrence. Why would she react in such a counterintuitive way?

Here’s Why

Whenever a belief becomes deeply ingrained into your mind, you hold that belief as an absolute truth and defend it at all costs. Thus, when you encounter information that challenges your personal beliefs, you subconsciously feel threatened, like prey being cornered by a predator. Negative emotions build up against that new information, causing you to reject it and continue clinging onto your old beliefs. Essentially, human brains love consistency and resist change. Thus, when someone like Mr. Stuart tries to correct Mara, she only reacts by strengthening her conviction in her faulty beliefs rather than changing her mind to accommodate the new information. 

Backfire Effect

The backfire effect is the phenomenon that occurs when your beliefs only grow stronger after being presented with contradictory evidence.

Science

One of the most prominent studies about the backfire effect was conducted in 2006 by researchers Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler. Nyhan and Reifler first selected a sample of people with diverse political affiliations. Then, they chose a few controversial political topics and created fake articles that confirmed popular misconceptions about those topics. The researchers would first show the subjects a fake article and then immediately after, show them a corrected article on the same subject that stated the true facts of the matter. For example, one of the fake articles that Nyhan and Reifler presented to subjects asserted that the U.S. found weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in Iraq prior to invading Iraq in 2003. After the subjects read this fake article, Nyhan and Reifler then gave them a corrected article which revealed that the U.S. actually hadn’t found any WMD in Iraq. 

It should be noted that at the time of the study, many conservatives (who largely supported George W. Bush) believed the U.S. had found WMD in Iraq because this justified the President’s decision to invade Iraq. Many liberals (who largely opposed Bush) at the time of the study did not hold this belief. Thus, Nyhan and Reifler found that the liberal subjects tended to believe the second article and dismiss the first, but the conservative subjects dismissed the second article and continued to argue that there were WMD found in Iraq. Thus, Nyhan and Reifler found that the backfire effect only takes place if a deeply-held belief is challenged by alternate facts – since the conservatives truly believed that WMD were found in Iraq, they were the ones who had the hardest time accepting an alternate truth. The liberals had an easy time of accepting the second article because they never believed that WMD were found in Iraq in the first place.

Why Care?

The ultimate consequences of the backfire effect can be seen in the words and actions of extremist groups such as the Westboro Baptist Church. The members of this church are infamous for picketing at fallen soldiers’ funerals, holding up signs with hate speech against the LGBTQ community, claiming that these soldiers’ deaths had occurred to pay for the “sin” of homosexuality in America. One of the most notable funerals that this church has picketed at is that of Matthew Snyder, a Marine killed in Iraq in 2006. Since then, despite being approached by protests that promote gay pride and bombarded with online comments supporting the LGBTQ community, the Westboro Baptist Church has remained entrenched in their belief that homosexuality is “sinful.” One clear instance is the church’s recent protests at the funerals of victims of the 2016 shooting in Orlando, which occurred at a gay nightclub called Pulse. 

On a more medical front, a study conducted by a journalist for The Atlantic in 2014 showed that the backfire effect helps power the anti-vaccination movement. In the study, a sample of people who were already concerned about the possible negative effects of vaccines on their immune systems were assured about the safeness of these shots, but it only served to increase their paranoia and decrease their willingness to get a vaccine.

It’s not only socio-political movements that are impacted by the backfire effect – plenty of commercial industries exploit the backfire effect to help sell their products. For example, take a look at the cigarette industry. It is legally required in the European Union to put health warning labels on cigarette packages, with taglines such as “Smoking causes blindness.” However, a good portion of cigarette customers still hold the belief that cigarettes don’t really do much damage to their bodies, and seeing these warnings will only convince them more of their own delusions and egg them into buying the product continuously. 

You might be looking at the Westboro Baptist Church, anti-vaccination supporters, and smokers with disdain right now, blaming them for being so stuck in their beliefs. However, the backfire effect isn’t all on them. Think of the way we tend to talk to each other these days, especially when it comes to sensitive, socio-political topics. People of differing political parties tend to view each other as rivals, talk down to each other, and are unable to hold civil conversations due to preconceived notions of the other side. Be mindful of the way you express your opinion to others so that you don’t immediately invalidate their thoughts, triggering the backfire effect. Remember that you too are susceptible to the backfire effect, so also be open when listening to an opinion that challenges your own.

    Learn More

    1. Identity and Epistemic Emotions During Knowledge Revision: A Potential Account for the Backfire Effect: Discourse Processes: Vol 53, No 5-6. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/0163853X.2015.1136507. Accessed 5 Aug. 2019.
    2. The Elusive Backfire Effect: Mass Attitudes’ Steadfast Factual Adherence | SpringerLink. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11109-018-9443-y. Accessed 5 Aug. 2019.
    3. When Debunking Scientific Myths Fails (and When It Does Not): The Backfire Effect in the Context of Journalistic Coverage and Immediate Judgments as Prevention Strategy – Christina Peter, Thomas Koch, 2016. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1075547015613523. Accessed 5 Aug. 2019.

    Think Further

    1. In a situation where you’re experiencing the backfire effect, how might you try to overcome it and be more open to others’ ideas? 
    2. What are some examples of the backfire effect in real life?
    3. Is the backfire effect always a bad thing? What if you held beliefs that were already “politically correct,” and the backfire effect just made your certainty in those beliefs even stronger? Discuss.