We tend to believe that when we share with people evidence that challenges their beliefs, they would re-evaluate and adjust their convictions accordingly. However, in reality, this is rarely the case.
Multiple studies show, Indeed, that when people encounter evidence that should cause them to doubt their beliefs, they often reject that evidence and reinforce their support for their original stance. This occurs due to a cognitive bias known as the backfire effect.
This bias can effect affects both your ability to change others’ opinions as well as your ability to process information rationally yourself.
In essence, the backfire effect means that showing people facts proving that they are wrong is often ineffective, and can actually end up backfiring, by causing them to support their original stance more strongly than they previously did.
A study that examined misconceptions about politically-charged topics found that giving people accurate information about these topics often causes them to believe in their original misconception more strongly, in cases where the new information contradicts their preexisting beliefs.
Another study that examined people’s intention to vaccinate against the flu found that giving people who think that the vaccine is unsafe information disproving myths on the topic, they often ended up with a reduced intent to vaccinate.
WHY DO PEOPLE EXPERIENCE THE BACKFIRE EFFECT
When a person encounters information that suggests that their current beliefs are wrong in some way, they feel threatened, which causes them to generate a variety of negative emotions. This is especially likely when the beliefs in question are crucial to their self-concept, which means that they represent an important part of that person’s identity and ideology.
The negative emotions that people generate end up negatively impacting their ability to accept the corrective information that they encountered, by increasing the likelihood that they will refuse to process it properly, and by increasing the likelihood that they will attempt to find ways to discount it.
Furthermore, when people argue against unwelcome information strongly enough, they often end up with more arguments to support their stance. This can cause them to believe that there is more proof in support of their viewpoint than there was before they were presented with the unwelcome evidence, which in turn can cause them to support their original stance more strongly than they previously did.
HOW TO REDUCE OTHER PEOPLE’S BACKFIRE EFFECT
A study that examined people’s opinions regarding federal welfare programs found that the majority of people were highly-misinformed about the nature and scope of these programs and that the people who were the least informed about them generally expressed the highest degree of confidence in their knowledge.
Furthermore, the researchers found that presenting people with facts about these welfare programs did little to change people’s opinions about them. However, in a follow-up study, the researchers discovered that tweaking the way they presented the facts made people respond more positively to the new evidence.
This means that when you’re talking to people in an effort to change their stance on something, you need to remember that how you present information is just as important as what information you present. if you want to avoid a backfire effect, you need to display the new information in a non-confrontational manner, that allows people to internalize the new facts, and reach the conclusion that you want them to reach themselves.
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