The Backfire Effect – How your online argument ‘win’ is really a loss

Updated 07/10/2020

Flat-earthers. Obama ‘Birthers’. Anti-Vaxers and homeopaths. If confronted with one, do you think your unique, implacable calm and logic would convince them? Have you ever had an unsuccessful argument with somebody and left feeling that if you could have been more coherent and logical they would have been swayed?
Let me reassure you: it wouldn’t have mattered if you were Albert Einstein or Simone De Beauvoir, and you had a mountain of empirical evidence at your disposal.
backfire effect futurama
Welcome to the ‘backfire effect’: where contradictory evidence only strengthens a person’s belief in the opposite. This is similar to the behavior exhibited by conspiracy theorists (as discussed in a previous article here) when confronted with information: they will not reject the fundamental axioms that act as a foundation to their ego. The backfire effect applies to beliefs that are not as irrational as a conspiracy theory can be. A lot of these beliefs will be reasonable, but misguided in the face of evidence. Not long after the 911 attacks Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler at The University of Michigan wrote fake newspaper articles about particularly polarizing political issues of the period, including articles about Iraq and weapons of mass destruction (a theory that the government famously latched onto, and currently being echoed with Iran). Subjects were given these and subsequently provided with articles correcting the misinformation in the previous articles. Predictably, those who were against the war were more likely to accept the correction, but those who were more ‘hawkish’ would not only reject the correction but also be even more firm in their belief of the initial article after the correction. Other issues such as abortion rights, tax reform, stem-cell research all have similar backfire tendencies: when subjects with a prior belief are given article supporting their belief, any correction tends to induce them to ‘double-down’ on their original belief. Mark Twain was credited with the fantastic quote “ A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes”. Amusingly this is complete fiction, but nevertheless it persists despite correction. A longer but just as elegant quote from Johnathan Swift is also apposite:
‘Besides, as the vilest Writer has his Readers, so the greatest Liar has his Believers; and it often happens, that if a Lie be believ’d only for an Hour, it has done its Work, and there is no farther occasion for it. Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it; so that when Men come to be undeceiv’d, it is too late; the Jest is over, and the Tale has had its Effect…’’
The root for this bias is that the lie must conform to an expectation or belief that a large number of people already suspect or believe internally. The Obama birther’s racism compelled them to believe he didn’t really belong in ‘their’ country, and so pore over any contrary evidence with great skepticism. Part of the failure of many small businesses is their inability to recognise when a market is not viable for their enterprise, or that circumstances have changed in society to make a new market available. To succeed a business needs to accept that you cannot argue with the market -no matter how irrational it may appear to be- the feedback will always be true, and knowing when to persist with an enterprise or when it is better to log off and walk away could be the key to future success.
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