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.


How it gets exploited[edit]

By knowing that one can profit from perpetuating a falsehood, one can exploit the backfire effect to one's own advantage. This happens for example when corporations know that they are doing something that is harmful but nonetheless promote denialism. The corporation can even publicly admit that their product is harmful while simultaneously covertly funding astroturf groups that promote the denialist message. Examples of this coverup behavior include the asbestos industry, the tobacco industry, the sugar industry, and the fossil fuel industry with regard to global warming.[2] The exploitation is not limited to industries, but also includes fundamentalist Christians (creationism) and alternative medicine promoters (anti-vaccination movement).[2]

How to fight it[edit]

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[3]

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.
  • Remember to ask questions--In fact, consider making at least half of your communications to them questions (genuine ones) instead of statements. Questions are often seen as less 'accusatory' and mulling over a question requires more thought than an angry knee-jerk reaction.

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.

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