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The "Backfire Effect": What it Means & 5 Tips to Counteract it!


Even when scientists proved that the world was round, some people still stuck to their belief that it was flat. You may not think the world is flat, but I suspect you once have stuck to your guns with an opinion despite contrary information.

This is caused by what's knows as the "Backfire Effect". Our desire to not be wrong and evade feelings of frustration and confusion can cause us to reject empirical evidence. Not only do we reject proof, but we may double down on our contrary beliefs.  

This article will discuss the backfire effect and how it impacts our lives. We will also provide 5 tips on how to counteract the backfire effect. 

What is the backfire effect?

The backfire effect is similar to the confirmation bias. We have already discussed the confirmation bias here at Tracking Happiness, you can find that article here

The confirmation bias has 2 key elements: 

  • It causes us to seek out information that corresponds with our beliefs. 
  • It encourages us to reject information that takes opposing views to us. 

The backfire effect expands on the confirmation bias.  

Not only does the backfire effect cause us to resist information that conflicts with our views. But it causes us to double down on our now disproven arguments. This double downing means we cling tighter to our position when presented with new evidence that contradicts our belief. 

Hence, the backfire effect is aptly named. Trying to change some people's opinions with evidence, science, and facts, can often have the reverse impact and backfire on us. 

What are examples of the backfire effect?

The backfire effect is more evident in spheres that are already polarized. Think of conspiracy theorists or those who adhere to limiting ideologies. 

A political example of the backfire effect is the group who ardently believe that Barack Obama was not born in America. To address the naysayers, the Obama administration released a copy of Obama’s birth certificate, leading to the group gathering online and criticizing it.

Not only did they reject the truth based on credible evidence, but the group became even more confident in their beliefs than before. They didn’t want it to be accurate, so they simply didn’t accept it. 

They considered themselves judge and jury. Vindicated by the rejection of what they believed to be fake evidence and felt surer than before. 

Then there’s the good old flu jab example. When giving new information to people who believe the flu vaccine is unsafe to disprove the myths around its safety, they have a reduced inclination to vaccinate. 

I know it sounds peculiar, but this is the backfire effect.

Studies on the backfire effect

A study from 2010 by Nyhan and Reifler found a backfire effect in their experiment

The authors presented an article with fake news to their participants. This fake news reported that during the invasion of Iraq in 2003, forces found weapons of mass destruction. The authors then submitted a correction, overriding the fake news and confirming that weapons of mass destruction were not found. 

The results were staggering. 

Participants with a liberal worldview and whose beliefs aligned with the correction were able to adjust their views following the new evidence. However, participants with a more conservative stance only doubled down. The modification only increased their belief in the misconception the fake news article pedaled. 

How does the backfire effect affect your mental health?

No one likes to be wrong. How do you feel when something you have long held as fact is disproven? You may feel foolish and embarrassed. It may cause you to feel angry and confused. 

This study considers emotions as a cause of the backfire effect. 

The authors presented 120 participants with a dietary self-concept questionnaire. The participants were then randomly assigned either an expository or refutation blurb on genetically modified foods. 

The authors found a link between positive dietary self-concept and the refutation blurb. This link served as a predictor of negative emotions such as frustration and anxiety. 

This frustration and anxiety can feel uncomfortable. The authors suggest we adopt the backfire effect to evade the discomfort of these feelings. This behavior means we hear the new information but reject it and revert to what we know out of a desire for comfort. 

Those susceptible to the backfire effect may constantly be in a state of fight and flight. They are ready to defend their position, argue, or engage in conflict. 

There are several reasons the backfire effect happens:

  • We don’t like to be wrong. 
  • We crave consistency. 
  • We invest emotionally in our long-held beliefs. 

Several years ago, a friend suggested I take an iron vitamin. I believed my iron levels were fine. My friend presented facts and figures on the amount of iron levels required for my lifestyle. I remained closed and unmoved.

In my view, my iron levels weren’t just OK; they were superior! I bragged to her that I had naturally high iron levels and shut down the conversation. 

It wasn’t until a routine blood test showed I had low iron levels that I rectified the situation. 

Why didn’t I take my friend's scientifically backed advice on board? Perhaps I would have felt foolish for not taking an iron supplement already. Whatever my reason, the backfire effect compromised my health.

5 tips for dealing with the backfire effect

Sometimes just being aware of a cognitive bias is enough to prevent it. But awareness isn’t always enough. Here are 5 tips to help avoid the backfire effect in your life. 

1. Take the emotion out of thinking 

When we remove emotion from our thinking, we are more likely to be open to change.

There is a knack for changing someone’s mind or trying to correct a belief. This article suggests we must lead with the value of the information first, followed by the facts. 

Leading with values first allows new information to be presented gently and minimizes the risk of triggering others or causing them to react defensively. 

When we feel triggered or defensive, our logic and judgment become clouded. 

If my friend had approached me with, “I know what could help you feel less fatigued and run faster,” I may have had a more open mindset to her suggestion of iron tablets. Instead, my defenses engaged, and I was closed off from changing my stance.

Value first, facts second. 

Knowing this, we need to try to recognize when we feel triggered and defensive. If we can overcome this and listen to the information, we stand a greater chance of avoiding the backfire effect. 

2. Improve your self-esteem 

According to this article, people who feel good about themselves are less susceptible to the backfire effect. Maybe these people know admitting to being wrong is not a sign of weakness or failure. 

So by improving our self-esteem, we can help evade the backfire effect. 

There are many ways we can improve our self-esteem, this includes: 

Greater self-esteem might help us counteract the backfire effect, but ultimately, it leads to greater life happiness and fulfillment overall. 

3. Find common ground

We are living in a polarized world. What used to be healthy debate has given way to verbal attacks. We focus on our differences when we could pay attention to what unites us. 

If we can find common ground with others with opposing views, we are more likely to take in and process their words. As opposed to batting away anything they throw at us, we should be better listeners and digest their information. 

Establishing common ground first and foremost can create an open and respectful conversation. It encourages us to listen to the information presented without feeling triggered or defensive. It helps us to not experience the other person as an opponent to whom we must not succumb. 

4. Do your research 

You may not trust others, but you can trust yourself. In this case, task yourself with detailed research. If you come across information contrary to your beliefs, don’t cling to your own story. This new information is an excellent opportunity to do some research. 

For fair and unbiased research, be careful of your search terms. Our wording can produce biased results.

For instance, we may think these two search terms are similar, but they will produce different results. They can feed into a confirmation bias. 

  • Is veganism healthy? 
  • Is veganism unhealthy? 

Alternative search terms for this topic could be: 

  • Health impact of veganism.
  • The pros and cons of veganism.

Look up science articles from all different angles. Read up-to-date research papers. Get to the heart of the topic at hand. Challenge your beliefs and be prepared to update your neurotransmitters with new information. 

5. Take your time

Too often, when we feel triggered or defensive, we also feel the urge to rush to reject incoming information. And once we deny data, it is even harder to back up and change our minds. This dogmatic thinking is all part of the backfire effect. 

Instead, learn to slow down. Listen to incoming information and feel free to mull it over. It’s OK not to commit to an opinion there and then. 

When my friend told me I should be taking iron tablets instead of doubling down, I could have bought myself some time. I could have said, “thanks for that. I’ll look into it.”

If you do this, you're neither rejecting this new information nor accepting it. 

This response gives us the time and space to conduct our research and process the new information logically.

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Wrapping up

It’s not just stubbornness and a desire to be right that leads to the backfire effect. It might also be caused by a fear of losing face, or an attempt at protecting your confidence. It's important to know when you may be susceptible to this cognitive bias. As always, awareness is the first step. Now you need to practice these 5 tips and you may be able to overcome the backfire effect altogether.

When was the last time you encountered the backfire effect? Do you have your own example of how this impacted you recently? I'd love to hear from you in the comments below!

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Ali Hall

Writer

Kindness is my superpower. Dogs and nature are my oxygen. Psychology with Sports science graduate. Scottish born and bred. I’ve worked and traveled all over the world. Find me running long distances on the hills and trails.

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