The Backfire Effect: When Accurate Information Is a Miscalculation

backfire effect misinformationBarack Obama is a Christian. He easily passes the tests you’d give to anyone else: he uses Christian language, he goes to church, and (most importantly) he says he’s a Christian!

It’s been fact checked, as if that would be necessary. Turns out that, yes, he’s a Christian.

But you wouldn’t know it from the polls. In March 2008, before Obama was elected president, polls showed 47% of Americans accepted that he was Christian, 12% said Muslim, and 36% didn’t know. With time, this groundless confusion should dissolve away, right? Nope. Four years later, the 2012 poll showed similar results.

Another poll in Mississippi found 12% saying Christian and 52% Muslim (and 36% Don’t Know). Among “very conservative” voters, it was 3% Christian, 58% Muslim, and 39% Don’t Know. That was in 2012. In America.

This example shows that we well-educated moderns don’t always accept obvious facts. Who could then doubt that first-century Christians might not have recorded events with perfect accuracy? But that’s just a corollary observation. I want to instead explore how this deeply embraced misinformation gets in our heads and stays there.

Backfire effect

The natural response for skeptics like me is to suppose that misinformed people simply don’t have the correct facts. These people are eager to know the truth, and if we provide them with the facts, the misinformation will vanish.

In some cases, this is true. A correction that doesn’t push any buttons can work. It’s easy to accept a more efficient driving route to work or a new accounting policy. In situations like politics, however—as the “Obama isn’t a Christian” example shows—things are more complicated. And here’s the crazy thing: presenting people with the correct information can reinforce the false beliefs. That’s the Backfire Effect.

One helpful article (“How facts backfire”) notes that it’s threatening to admit that you’re wrong, especially where one’s worldview is involved, as with politics and religion. The article calls the Backfire Effect a defense mechanism that avoids cognitive dissonance.

In reality, we often base our opinions on our beliefs, which can have an uneasy relationship with facts. And rather than facts driving beliefs, our beliefs can dictate the facts we chose to accept. They can cause us to twist facts so they fit better with our preconceived notions.

It gets worse. I’ve written before about the critical but often overlooked difference between confidence and accuracy in memories, how a confident memory isn’t necessarily an accurate one. Studies of the Backfire Effect show that those people most confident in their grasp of the facts tended to be the least knowledgeable about the topic. That is, those most in need of correcting their beliefs are least likely to do so.

This isn’t just an academic issue. These people are voters, and their ignorance affects public policy.

(As an aside, this is related to the Dunning-Kruger effect in which more competent people rate their ability less than it actually is, while less competent people do the reverse. The hypothesis is that the less competent people were too incompetent to appreciate their own incompetence.)

How can we humans be as smart as we are but have this aversion to correct information? The human brain seems to seek consistency. It’s mentally easy to select confirming information and ignore the rest. Reevaluating core principles is difficult and stressful work.

Let’s not be too hard on ourselves, though. If we had to continually reevaluate everything, we’d never get out of bed in the morning. Cognitive shortcuts make sense, usually.

In part 2, we’ll conclude with a look at how to correct misinformation without triggering the Backfire Effect.

The door of a bigoted mind opens outwards

so that the only result of the pressure of facts upon it
is to close it more snugly.
— Ogden Nash

Photo credit: adrian capusan

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  • Pofarmer

    This kind of the true believer effect, as well. Eric Hoffer argues,at the end of his book that you must not just disprove a belief, you generally must provide an alternative belief.

    • RichardSRussell

      Always happy to see someone quoting The True Believer, my all-time favorite non-fiction book. I wish it were required reading in every high school in America.

      • Pofarmer

        It’s the most I’ve ever highlighted any book. I am currently reading Victor Stenger, and if you trust empirical science at all, he is devastating.

        • 90Lew90

          Which one? I’ve got God and the Folly of Faith in a pile beside me just now for quick reference. Great stuff. Haven’t read The True Believer.

        • Pofarmer

          “The True Believers”

        • Rudy R

          The True Believer is on my reading list. I have much respect for Stenger, but I find his writing dry and uninspiring. I think Carl Sagan on cosmology and Richard Dawkins on biology are the gold standard for making the difficult subjects easy to understand.

        • Pofarmer

          Stenger just gets to the point. I actually rather like it, because I read a lot, and excess verbosity doesn’t help me out any.

  • MNb

    Between “How can we humans be …”
    and “If we had to continually reevaluate …”

    I’d like to add that self-criticism tends to undermine self-confidence and people with low self-esteem achieve less.

    • Pofarmer

      Religion is certainly all about self criticism.

      • TheNuszAbides

        Or at least the most corrupt leaders make sure their flocks apply it ‘appropriately’…

  • smrnda

    With “Obama is a Christian” this often seems to be a case of No True Christian. If a Christian happens to disagree with Obama on a key issue, or finds him inadequately vocal about being a Christian, or finds his beliefs insufficiently orthodox, Obama is No True Christian.

    But take that logic and push it back to the 1st century. No reason to assume that the same wasn’t going on back then. It’s just Xtianty had less of a history then,so it was probably easier to denounce people as consensus was emerging.

    • RichardSRussell

      But there’s a difference between the negative statement “Obama isn’t a true Christian” (which still allows that he might be some kind of Christian) and the affirmative one “Obama is really a Muslim” (which pretty much rules out his Christianity altogether). It’s the latter opinion that, as Bob points out, is shared by such a walloping large percentage of the populace — probably the same people who also believe he was born in Kenya and retroactively faked his Hawaiian birth certificate.

      FWIW, there are plenty of people on the other end of the political spectrum who are convinced that Bush and Cheney were behind 9/11 because they so ardently wanted an excuse to go to war with Saddam Hussein.

      In keeping with the holiday season, I’ve decorated a Christmas tree of craziness with little bulbs of my opinions on such matters.

      • smrnda

        I am thinking more people who say things like ‘when Obama uses the words of Jesus to justify confiscating wealth from job creators, it proves he is not a Christian but a godless communist oppressor!’ More people who argue that he is not and has never been a Christian but is appropriating the label as he’s usurped the presidency, than he’s not a ‘good enough’ Christian. Obama says he’s a Christian but X proves he’s really the antichrist putting us on.

        The claims that he is a secret Muslim are another level of silliness. Since I’d have to see some positive evidence for his Muslim status. I have yet to see footage of Obama praying towards Mecca, he hasn’t quotes the Qur’an, his wife and daughters wear clothing that is not sharia code compliant.

        • Kodie

          I think it is more “the antichrist” thing than anything else. Why should anyone care if Obama is a Muslim? They are grasping at anything they can use to discredit him, by placing him with “the enemy” – the religious belief that wants to destroy the American way of life. People also seem quite keenly aware that they can’t vocally distrust the president because he’s black and deny that that’s why they’re so sure he is a traitor to our interests. Given that the war in the Middle East continues, I don’t know why they think he’s a Muslim at all.

        • TheNuszAbides

          My guess would be that most of them either think we shouldn’t have anything to do with foreign adventures (and perhaps supplement their narrative by supposing that the president is shrewdly, indirectly supporting this or that faction within Islam) or that we aren’t doing enough damage/revenge/whatever and that ‘his’ military stance is only riling up his Muslim buddies [sic] to spread [insert hobgoblin of choice here] further and wider.

      • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

        probably the same people who also believe he was born in Kenya and retroactively faked his Hawaiian birth certificate

        … by going back in time. Reptoids can do that, y’know.

      • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

        I like the tree. It is helpful to be reminded that the Left has nutty thinking as well.

        As for your middle group, I’d have put anti-vax and homeopathy on the Left. Thoughts?

        • wtfwjtd

          Plenty of tea-bagger types around here subscribe to both anti-vax and homeopathy. I’m sure it’s probably different in your area, and shows that neither end of the political spectrum has a monopoly on certain kinds of nuttiness.

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

          That’s interesting. My stereotypes may well be wrong. I had those both pegged as leftist issues.

        • Pofarmer

          Not at all. Conservatives can be anti vaxers and homeopathy nuts and all sorts of things. Hell, I go to a chiropractor occasionally for the things he can help, and some things he can help. Hell, I’m mildly annti vax after having two kids in the hospital within a few days af getting z whole slug of vaccinations. I think sometimes we push too many vaccines at once on a young kids immune system. So, sue me. D;}

        • RichardSRussell

          Chiropractic is one of those maddening things that’s neither quite fish nor fowl. It clearly works for some things, but the ridiculous claims that it can cure cancer and is based on manipulating bodily energies just make me roll my eyes. So its perches on the fence, halfway between real medicine and witchcraft.

        • wtfwjtd

          Like most things in life, issues are usually more complex than they first appear. Chiropractors clearly help some people for certain problems, but as Richard alludes to below, some of them also make claims that are absurd. As for vaccines, I think this one is over-worked from both sides. Vaccines seem to have some usefulness in certain scenarios, and are generally safe for most people most of the time, but they do carry risks, much like any other treatment or procedure. One the other end of the spectrum, the idea that they are single-handedly responsible for autism and all other modern childhood problems seems pretty far out there, right along side “Bush caused 9/11” and “Obama is a secret Kenyan Muslim” in my book.

        • Greg G.

          I know a few anti-vax people and each one is heavily Christian answer strictly Republican while all the homeopathic people I have ever known were liberals but apparently not religious enough to be obvious.

        • RichardSRussell

          I haven’t detected much in the line of political leanings one way or the other from those 2 groups. I don’t see them so much as political or anti-science as just “without” science. The whole idea of cause-effect and hypothesis testing seems to simply be absent from their thot processes.

  • MR

    It’s easy to accept a more efficient driving route to work or a new accounting policy.

    Obviously you’ve never tried to implement a new accounting policy.

  • FoLokinix

    Oh no, not the D-K effect. That puts me in an endless loop of rating myself at opposite ends of the scale based on my response to thinking I’m on one end!

    • Greg G.

      If you know what the D-K is, you have enough competence to not be at the lowest degree of it. At least, that’s what I think.

  • Maine_Skeptic

    I’ve been doing some reading on the kind of fact-resistant controversies that result in the backfire effect, and I don’t think the situation is as dismal as it can sound. Cognitive scientists have suggested the central problem is that people organize their thoughts in story lines (narratives). Once we’ve adopted a narrative about a certain subject (like Obama), we filter out any information that doesn’t fit our narrative.

    George Lakoff has even suggested the reason Republicans keep getting away with lying through their teeth is that they’re very skilled at manipulating people through narratives: established ones or those they’ve constructed themselves. A lot of the coded language Republicans use is keyed toward reminding people of these narratives. One example is the racist mythology about black people with regard to laziness, addiction to handouts, and shiftlessness. With that in mind, pay attention to how often and how many ways Obama has been called lazy. He’s been called the “food stamp president,” and Obamacare has falsely and persistently been called socialism. They trust him so little that they actually think his citizenship is a scam.

    Once people have bought into the narrative that witches are working dark magic in the village, every new piece of information is going to be fitted into that narrative. We as human beings will jam it into place with a sledgehammer if we have to.

    But it isn’t usually permanent. There’s still cognitive dissonance there, even if we’re unaware of it consciously. I suspect that’s why so many witch hunts seem to fall apart suddenly. Once the dissonance reaches a certain critical mass, the right stimulus causes the narrative to fall apart. People may not be willing to admit they’ve been wrong, but they quit shouting that the witches should be burned.

    What’s been truly insidious on the part of the GOP is that they never run out of fake outrages. About the time people are tiring of one manufactured controversy, they just make up something else. There’s no calming effect, because they work very hard to make sure there’s always an outrage of the moment.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

      You’re providing a hint of optimism, and I appreciate that, but I’m not sure what the algorithm is to getting through. And when people are cornered, don’t they often double down?

      • RichardSRussell

        And when people are cornered, don’t they often double down?

        Yes, they do, which is why it’s more important to pull than to push.

      • Maine_Skeptic

        I don’t think there’s any guaranteed way to break through someone else’s narrative, especially if they’ve cast you as “the enemy” or someone untrustworthy. People do double down. They can also inoculate themselves against the facts by reinterpreting what you tell them so that it actually reinforces their existing narrative. It’s frustrating as hell. Still, just because they’re “backfiring” doesn’t mean the seeds aren’t planted for a different point of view later on.

        While nothing is guaranteed to break through, sometimes it works to climb inside the other person’s narrative. We all like to be understood, so when someone can express to us our own view of the world, it can be an attention getter. Once I know someone does understand, I’m a lot more likely to listen to what they have to say. If they then can show me that my way of looking at things isn’t as self-consistent as I thought, it can resonate. I may not change my mind right then, but it makes a difference.

        On climate change, for example, if people know we understand that the things that would limit climate change do sound conveniently like liberal talking points, they’re more likely to listen to what else we have to say. So if we ask, for instance, who could arrange a conspiracy in which 98% of studies by climate scientists, of all political persuasion and nationalities, support the idea that we’re causing a rapid change in our own environment, something may resonate a little bit.

        Of course, the only change may be that they adapt their own narrative so that all climate scientists have bought into a kind of groupthink, so it’s not really a conspiracy. Even so, when they have to adapt their narrative, it weakens it.

        “Small steps, Ellie,” to quote Carl Sagan.

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

          Yes, small positive steps are about all we can hope for.

          My approach on the anthropogenic climate change question is to focus on energy independence, the oil money that’s currently going to countries that fund terrorism, and the business opportunities in green energy.

          It hasn’t changed any minds that I know of, but it’s got to work better than the Liberal Agenda® of destroying the American economy by giving all our money to the UN and the third world.

        • Maine_Skeptic

          I hope I don’t sound naive, because I realize there’s no silver bullet. It takes ten calm, sane people to make up the damage done by one raging idealogue, and right now about 30% of the population seems to be raging conservative idealogues.

          Still, change does happen, and it’s hard to recognize until it reaches a certain critical mass. Then it seems to have happened all at once.

  • wtfwjtd

    One wonders, if maybe there is some application of peer pressure when it comes to actually reporting facts that we know. Using your example of Obama, around here if you asserted to my relatives that he’s a Christian, you’d probably start a big argument and then get shunned(hummm…maybe that’s not such a bad idea…?)
    Back on topic, it could be that many people really know that Obama is a Christian, but they are also aware that in some circles they will get considerable, and often very undesirable, backlash for publicly stating this fact. In this case, showing your ignorance publicly truly is bliss, to paraphrase the old cliche.

  • Greg G.

    It looks like Jesus and Mo read this article:

    http://www.jesusandmo.net/2014/12/24/wired/