Backfire effect

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What should be evident from the studies on the backfire effect is you can never win an argument online. When you start to pull out facts and figures, hyperlinks and quotes, you are actually making the opponent feel as though they are even more sure of their position than before you started the debate. As they match your fervor, the same thing happens in your skull. The backfire effect pushes both of you deeper into your original beliefs.
You Are Not So Smart - The Backfire Effect[1]

The backfire effect occurs when, in the face of contradictory evidence, established beliefs do not change but actually get stronger. The effect has been demonstrated experimentally in psychological tests, where subjects are given data that either reinforces or goes against their existing biases - and in most cases people can be shown to increase their confidence in their prior position regardless of the evidence they were faced with.

In a pessimistic sense, this makes most refutations useless.


[edit] Causes

[edit] How to fight it

Not taking ideas personally is made easier by the meta-belief that holding certain beliefs does not make you a better person.
Peter BoghossianWikipedia's W.svg[2]

The backfire effect is extremely strong. But there are some proven ways to bring someone around to your point of view.

  • Let tempers cool down a bit before bringing a subject up again. A large portion of the backfire effect stems from people not wanting to be seen as wrong or stupid in front of an audience. Once the flame wars die down a bit people will be more emotionally able to accept your viewpoint.
  • Stymied by the opponent's selfishness? If possible, you should show your opponent how something would benefit them personally. A lot of people view certain positions as a zero sum game and if you're able to show that it's not (or at least they'd get the long end of the stick) you can bring them around.
  • Just wait for a little bit. Sometimes what you said actually sank in to some extent; they just need some time to mull it over.

Of course, the most important thing to remember is that you yourself are just as vulnerable to it as your opponent. Make sure you don't fall victim to the backfire effect by carefully examining evidence that seems to contradict your preconceptions, and allowing for the possibility that you might have been wrong.

[edit] How to abuse it

If you're feeling especially mischievous, you can use the backfire effect to trap someone into a bad position and pound them repeatedly to get what you want.

Martin Luther King specifically targeted the short-tempered sheriff Jim Clark to raise awareness for American civil rights. However, King wasn't trying to convince his opponent so much as trick him into making himself look like a total thug and moron.

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