The backfire effect has been greatly exaggerated

Sep 8 JDN 2458736

Do a search for “backfire effect” and you’re likely to get a large number of results, many of them from quite credible sources. The Oatmeal did an excellent comic on it. The basic notion is simple: “[…]some individuals when confronted with evidence that conflicts with their beliefs come to hold their original position even more strongly.”

The implications of this effect are terrifying: There’s no point in arguing with anyone about anything controversial, because once someone strongly holds a belief there is nothing you can do to ever change it. Beliefs are fixed and unchanging, stalwart cliffs against the petty tides of evidence and logic.

Fortunately, the backfire effect is not actually real—or if it is, it’s quite rare. Over many years those seemingly-ineffectual tides can erode those cliffs down and turn them into sandy beaches.

The most recent studies with larger samples and better statistical analysis suggest that the typical response to receiving evidence contradicting our beliefs is—lo and behold—to change our beliefs toward that evidence.

To be clear, very few people completely revise their worldview in response to a single argument. Instead, they try to make a few small changes and fit them in as best they can.

But would we really expect otherwise? Worldviews are holistic, interconnected systems. You’ve built up your worldview over many years of education, experience, and acculturation. Even when someone presents you with extremely compelling evidence that your view is wrong, you have to weigh that against everything else you have experienced prior to that point. It’s entirely reasonable—rational, even—for you to try to fit the new evidence in with a minimal overall change to your worldview. If it’s possible to make sense of the available evidence with only a small change in your beliefs, it makes perfect sense for you to do that.

What if your whole worldview is wrong? You might have based your view of the world on a religion that turns out not to be true. You might have been raised into a culture with a fundamentally incorrect concept of morality. What if you really do need a radical revision—what then?

Well, that can happen too. People change religions. They abandon their old cultures and adopt new ones. This is not a frequent occurrence, to be sure—but it does happen. It happens, I would posit, when someone has been bombarded with contrary evidence not once, not a few times, but hundreds or thousands of times, until they can no longer sustain the crumbling fortress of their beliefs against the overwhelming onslaught of argument.

I think the reason that the backfire effect feels true to us is that our life experience is largely that “argument doesn’t work”; we think back to all the times that we have tried to convince to change a belief that was important to them, and we can find so few examples of when it actually worked. But this is setting the bar much too high. You shouldn’t expect to change an entire worldview in a single conversation. Even if your worldview is correct and theirs is not, that one conversation can’t have provided sufficient evidence for them to rationally conclude that. One person could always be mistaken. One piece of evidence could always be misleading. Even a direct experience could be a delusion or a foggy memory.

You shouldn’t be trying to turn a Young-Earth Creationist into an evolutionary biologist, or a climate change denier into a Greenpeace member. You should be trying to make that Creationist question whether the Ussher chronology is really so reliable, or if perhaps the Earth might be a bit older than a 17th century theologian interpreted it to be. You should be getting the climate change denier to question whether scientists really have such a greater vested interest in this than oil company lobbyists. You can’t expect to make them tear down the entire wall—just get them to take out one brick today, and then another brick tomorrow, and perhaps another the day after that.

The proverb is of uncertain provenance, variously attributed, rarely verified, but it is still my favorite: No single raindrop feels responsible for the flood.

Do not seek to be a flood. Seek only to be a raindrop—for if we all do, the flood will happen sure enough. (There’s a version more specific to our times: So maybe we’re snowflakes. I believe there is a word for a lot of snowflakes together: Avalanche.)

And remember this also: When you argue in public (which includes social media), you aren’t just arguing for the person you’re directly engaged with; you are also arguing for everyone who is there to listen. Even if you can’t get the person you’re arguing with to concede even a single point, maybe there is someone else reading your post who now thinks a little differently because of something you said. In fact, maybe there are many people who think a little differently—the marginal impact of slacktivism can actually be staggeringly large if the audience is big enough.

This can be frustrating, thankless work, for few people will ever thank you for changing their mind, and many will condemn you even for trying. Finding out you were wrong about a deeply-held belief can be painful and humiliating, and most people will attribute that pain and humiliation to the person who called them out for being wrong—rather than placing the blame where it belongs, which is on whatever source or method made you wrong in the first place. Being wrong feels just like being right.

But this is important work, among the most important work that anyone can do. Philosophy, mathematics, science, technology—all of these things depend upon it. Changing people’s minds by evidence and rational argument is literally the foundation of civilization itself. Every real, enduring increment of progress humanity has ever made depends upon this basic process. Perhaps occasionally we have gotten lucky and made the right choice for the wrong reasons; but without the guiding light of reason, there is nothing to stop us from switching back and making the wrong choice again soon enough.

So I guess what I’m saying is: Don’t give up. Keep arguing. Keep presenting evidence. Don’t be afraid that your arguments will backfire—because in fact they probably won’t.

2 thoughts on “The backfire effect has been greatly exaggerated

  1. really interesting post, but I’d caution about making too much of a “worldview”–very few people observed in the survey evidence have encompassing underlying attitudes. it’s far more common to simply cobble together a hodgepodge of opinions. i’d Kinder & Kalmoe (2017) as the best recent cite on this.

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    • I would make a distinction between worldview and ideology. What Kinder and Kalmoe are really arguing for is a general lack of ideology: People don’t necessarily line up their beliefs with a well-defined political faction like “Republican” or “Marxist”.

      But I would argue that people do—indeed must—have some kind of worldview, some constellation of core beliefs that guide how they interact with the world. It may be that most features of these worldviews are basically the same across individuals: We all agree that gravity pulls things downward, that water is wet, that money is valuable. But at least at times there seem to be rather significant disagreements, if not over the beliefs themselves then over how to prioritize different concerns, or over “belief in belief” statements with no direct factual content. And insofar as these beliefs are strongly held, it makes perfect sense for people to be resistant to changing them. We are frustrated that we can’t change these beliefs easily, but this should not surprise us. They really shouldn’t change after just one argument, unless that argument were truly spectacularly good, something with the compelling force of a mathematical proof.

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