We all suffer from biases in our own thinking, but the backfire effect is one of the most counterintuitive.

What Is the Backfire Effect?

Most of us tend to question our beliefs when we find evidence which doesn’t agree with them. The natural response to differing information is to adjust our thinking and consider why we might be wrong. We then tend to find new beliefs. Or we adjust our existing ones to include this new information.

However, some of us do not. Some people actually become more convinced of their own beliefs. Even when confronted with conflicting evidence.

“Try not to get overly attached to a hypothesis just because it’s yours.” Carl Sagan

Those who do not find ways to adjust and change their thinking suffer from the backfire effect. This effect is a common bias that alters and guides how people view the world.

How Does the Backfire Effect Work?

The backfire effect is the tendency some people have to reject evidence which does not align with their own beliefs. In fact, they may even become more convinced of those beliefs when confronted with evidence that disagrees with them rather than questioning them.

“Once something is added to your collection of beliefs, you protect it from harm. You do this instinctively and unconsciously when confronted with attitude-inconsistent information.” David McRaney

The backfire effect is a manifestation of confirmation bias. Confirmation bias causes people to give more weight to evidence that supports their view than which refutes it.

The backfire effect is a cognitive error that renders our critical thinking inept because we do not use all of the evidence. Perhaps we may know that on some level we are wrong, but refuse to accept it. This causes those suffering from the backfire effect to disregard evidence which may be of critical importance.

Why Do People Experience It?

When people come across information which goes against their beliefs, they feel a range of negative emotions. They may feel threatened by the fact they are shown to be wrong or upset by the fact something you staunchly believe might not be correct. This reduces the individual’s ability to accept the information placed in front of them. Instead, it increases the likelihood they will reject it.

How Does It Affect Your Beliefs?

The Backfire Effect does not necessarily affect your beliefs per se. This is because people tend to reject information which negates their beliefs. However, it does lead people to stand behind beliefs which are most likely incorrect.

“Coming or going, you stick to your beliefs instead of questioning them. When someone tries to correct you, tries to dilute your misconceptions, it backfires and strengthens those misconceptions instead.” David McRaney

This has a knock-on effect on other beliefs and decisions people make when they suffer from the backfire effect. They may make incorrect decisions or damage relationships based on the fact they cannot be open-minded about certain beliefs.

3 Way to Avoid the Backfire Effect for Yourself

Unfortunately, we are all prone to different kinds of cognitive biases. However, there are ways we can negate their effects so that we think more clearly.

  • The first and most important step is to recognize where you might suffer from cognitive biases. We all have areas where we strongly believe we are correct and this is where the backfire effect has the most power.
  • Secondly, it is important to recognize that your beliefs may not be correct. Continuing to learn more about things you believe yourself to be an expert on allows you to keep an open mind. Allow others to question your beliefs and don’t cut out the possibility that they might have relevant information to your beliefs.
  • Finally, be present in the situation and apply different critical thinking skills to assess new information.

How to Avoid the Backfire Effect with Others

When people actively believe in a certain position, they find it difficult to be challenged. When addressing someone who you think is suffering from the backfire effect, it is important to come to the situation properly.

The most important thing to remember is that you must treat the person with respect. Understand that you may be offending them when you bring new information to them and be sensitive to this.

Use simple explanations and change the way you present information if you find your current stance is not working. Frame the information you are presenting to respect the person’s views but using the correct information.

Ask the individual if they have any questions on the new information and address these properly and with respect. Research has found that those who have their questions answered are more likely to compare new information with their existing beliefs.

The most important thing is to not get angry or try to force someone to change their opinion. The backfire effect is strong and you may end up simply damaging the relationship.

Be respectful and kind, but don’t be afraid to bring new information to those who don’t agree with you. The only way we can learn is to critically assess new information and adjust our ideas accordingly.

Final Thoughts

The backfire effect can have a strong impact on our daily lives, both personally and in the workplace. Being able to recognize and address it is the key to improving your critical thinking skills.

The backfire effect can impact anyone, so understanding how to avoid it within yourselves and address it with others is the best way to reduce its effects.

References:

  1. whatis.techtarget.com
  2. www.scientificamerican.com
Francesca Forsythe, LL.M., M.Phil.

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