“Watch your backfire” (Backfire Effect)

BACKFIREWhen the 2012 college football season was in high gear, speculation abounded about which teams would play in what passed for the national championship in those days that we wandered in the pre-playoff wilderness. One poster asserted that, if unbeaten, Kansas State and Notre Dame would play for the title. Enter an SEC advocate, whom we’ll call Billy Bo Jim Bob. No way, he insisted. For the SEC was so high, so mighty, so revered, that a one-loss SEC team’s mere presence in that majestic conference would sway the committee to select it over two unbeaten teams. I responded that in 2004 there were five unbeaten teams, including Auburn, and that the Tigers were bypassed for two non-SEC teams. Billy Bo responded, “That proves my point.”

By no means is this mindset limited to sports-crazed Southerners. Billy Bo’s retort was a manifestation of the Backfire Effect. This is when deep convictions meet contradictory proof, resulting not in a new viewpoint, but in a hardening of beliefs.

The most well-known example of recent years is Barack Obama’s birthplace. The newspaper birth announcement, ironically, was discovered by an early Birther who was hoping that a lack of announcement would bolster his position. Instead of accepting this evidence, Birthers promulgated the preposterous notion that Obama had been born in Kenya, his relatives in Hawaii had received news of this, had applied for a Certificate of Live Birth for someone born overseas, the state had granted this request, this information was forward to the newspapers, and the announcement ran, all in 11 days.

Birthers then attributed the release of the Long Form to the imminent release of the Birther Bible, Jerome Corsi’s book Where’s the Birth Certificate? They gathered in their online inculcation chambers, making a big deal about layers and whatever else. When their most cherished idea was disproved, they considered this more evidence for their position.

Imagine your mail includes an unexpected bill you can’t pay. Or you’re on a hike when a cougar appears in the clearing. Or, for maximum effect, you get the unexpected bill AND there’s a cougar nearby. These are bad elements, and they require a response. That same evolutionary wiring may be the reason behind the Backfire Effect. You feel threatened and need to react.

Indeed, we often pay more attention to ideas that upset us. Psychologists Peter Ditto and David Lopez conducted a study in which subjects put a drop of saliva onto a strip. Half the subjects were told if the strip turned green within 20 seconds, it indicated an enzyme disorder. Most in this group waited 20 seconds, then put the strip down and walked away. Just one in six retested to make sure. The other half was told that green meant no disorder. Subjects in this group stood at the strip for far longer than 20 seconds, and over half retested themselves. So good news just passes through us, but potentially bad news can get us stewing.

The Backfire Effect has always existed, but has been made much easier to employ thanks to the Internet. There are sites where nuclear power and the Hiroshima bombing are hoaxes. If regular Birthers are too moderate for you, there are sites that insist Obama is not the president. No matter what reality one if hoping to flee, there are sites that offer comfort.

Whether or not the Backfire Effect kicks in is based not on the amount or type of evidence, nor how much the person believes it. It’s based on how important the belief is to the person. The most common misconception about journalism is that reporters write the headlines, when this is actually done by editors. It greatly surprises people when I tell them this, but no one decrees this an unfounded, immoral, reporter-bashing, editor-shill, conspiracy. By contrast, Galileo’s discoveries threatened the Church, the State, and the population’s understanding of their world, and insinuated that they were not the center of the universe.

I sometimes encounter claims that the United States was founded on the Bible. I respond with mentioning the Constitutional prohibitions against establishing a religion and imposing a religious test for public office. I further point out that the First Commandment mandates the worship of Yahweh, whereas the First Amendment guarantees the right to worship any god or none at all. While offering no evidence, the others insist their point is still valid, saying “Faith was very important the Founding Fathers,” or “The Constitution is our legal foundation, but the Bible is our spiritual foundation.”

One of my favorite mantras is “Never be afraid to have your views or beliefs challenged. If they are correct they will withstand the challenge. If they are wrong, you will be enlightened.” As far as putting this into practice, however, there is little advice I can offer because the Backfire Effect is so strong. But here are some ideas on how you can bring someone to accept unpleasant evidence:

  • Let them know that they and their beliefs are separate. They are not one and the same.
  • Frame the disagreement as a collaboration, not a conflict. You should both be after the truth.
  • Learn what logical fallacies are and how to avoid them. Some right proper, jim-dandy posts about that on this blog.

The how and where are also important. It is probably only the slightest exaggeration to write that no one in Internet history has changed an anonymous person’s deeply held belief online. Facebook messaging and e-mails with someone you know is a little more possible, but in person is best, especially if the person likes and trusts you.

No one wants to look stupid. Rather than shoving proof in their face, encourage them to look for such-and-such online or in a book, then ask them later what they thought of it. Without sacrificing accuracy, show them how it might benefit them or their family. Let them know it doesn’t have to be all or nothing, if this is true. For instance, I could encourage a creationist friend to accept evidence for the age of the universe without treading into how the universe got here.

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