The backfire effect, and how to leapfrog it

If you have evidence against something that will harm public health or waste money, just tell everybody and they’ll understand and stop it, right? Nope, humans don’t work that way. More likely you’ll provoke the backfire effect, reinforcing beliefs in the bad information that caused the problem in the first place. Here are some ways to jump over that effect to get at solutions to the problem.

Shankar Vedantam wrote in the Washington Post 15 Sep 2008 about The Power of Political Misinformation, illustrating with a couple of well-known examples of misinformation (you’ll recognize them), and continuing:

Nearly all these efforts rest on the assumption that good information is the antidote to misinformation.

But a series of new experiments show that misinformation can exercise a ghostly influence on people’s minds after it has been debunked — even among people who recognize it as misinformation.

Countering bad information directly just reinforces it.

Chris Mooney wrote more about why that is in Mother Jones 18 April 2011, The Science of Why We Don’t Believe Science:

"A MAN WITH A CONVICTION is a hard man to change. Tell him you disagree and he turns away. Show him facts or figures and he questions your sources. Appeal to logic and he fails to see your point." So wrote the celebrated Stanford University psychologist Leon Festinger (PDF), a passage that might have been referring to climate change denial—the persistent rejection, on the part of so many Americans today, of what we know about global warming and its human causes. But it was too early for that—this was the 1950s—and Festinger was actually describing a famous case study in psychology.

It’s not like this observation was new:
“It is impossible for a man to learn what he thinks he already knows.”
—Epictetus (c.55-c.135)
The difference is that Festinger investigated modern examples of the phenomenon with modern scientific techniques, for example infiltrating an end-of-the-world cult (is it May 21st yet?) and discovering that when the day came and the world didn’t end they just believed that their faith had postponed the end!

Mooney continues with even more modern experiments that demonstrate the phenomenon, and then spells out the backfire effect:

And that undercuts the standard notion that the way to persuade people is via evidence and argument. In fact, head-on attempts to persuade can sometimes trigger a backfire effect, where people not only fail to change their minds when confronted with the facts—they may hold their wrong views more tenaciously than ever.
I promised to spell this out: “Because if that is all, you are using their own framing, and reinforcing the biomass supporters in their own minds.”

Marching around with nothing but signs that say “No Biomass” just re-enforces in many peoples’ minds that biomass must be good. The VDT can editorialize about how people ought to stop thinking that it’s just a bunch of fringe people opposed to biomass, but the signs are a large part of why people believe that. I can spell out and show pictures over and over of black and white, old and young, academics and workers marching with those signs, but all a lot of people see are the signs.

Does that mean stop carrying those signs? No. But it would be more productive to add some other signs.

Mooney concludes:

…you don’t lead with the facts in order to convince. You lead with the values—so as to give the facts a fighting chance.
What are your values? Why do you care about biomass? It’s largely health, isn’t it? How about some signs that say Yes Clean Air! or Yes Healthy Children! or … you make some up.

How about go deeper? Why do people want the biomass plant, anyway? Because they want jobs for themselves and their children. Don’t we all want that? So why not talk about that?

What will provide more jobs? Even Sonny Murphy is promoting solar for jobs. Even Mr. formerly-Democratic-now-Republican state Senator Tim Golden is singing the praises of Jimmy Carter and Ted Turner and quoting Yogi Berra to say solar is good practice now. A recent Arizona State University study says Georgia is number 3 out of the top ten states that could benefit most by generating solar electricity, after only Arizona and Colorado.

And south Georgia could generate so much power it could power itself and generate profit by exporting electricity to Atlanta! All with lots of jobs planning, installing, studying, etc.: jobs for construction workers, architects, and professors.

Atlanta wants our water? Ha! Let’s sell them solar!


7 thoughts on “The backfire effect, and how to leapfrog it

  1. Seth Gunning

    Great article John. Thanks for turning me onto the research presented here, I’ll be looking into and using it. I’d also suggest a book called “Breakthrough: from the death of environmentalism to the politics of possibility”. I think you will love it.
    Beyond changing the messaging on signs, which I think is a great idea, I think what the research reflects is a fundamental change in the approach to the work.
    A key to community organizing work, as opposed to activism, is intimately knowing and publicly identifying your self-interest. Speak with your peers one on one to help them identify and expand their self-interests as a way to build capacity for the work. To empower and connect with community members and decision makers. A limited number of people can do a limited number of things for a limited amount of time, but if your primary focus as activists/organizers is to connect people with and expand their internal capacities as well as provide training to enhance external skills as are related to the work, a limited number of people can make largely unlimited amount of change to root causes issues; that is, to systems rather then symptoms.
    Great posts. Love the place your coming from. Good Luck and all my will to the allies enhancing Valdosta’s clean, just energy future!

  2. Michael G. Noll

    Not sure what started this particular post, but as Stephen Hawking put it: “The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge.” –
    We are where we are as a community in relationship to the biomass issue because of our holistic approach, and with “we” I do not mean WACE exclusively. There have been countless one on one conversations with private citizens and elected representatives, presentations at churches and at VSU, guest columns, letters to the editor and phone calls, regular tables at downtown events, newsletters, a letter writing campaign to local doctors, most recently a billboard on Baytree, etc.
    From the start, myths and facts about biomass have been presented and dissected, alternatives for energy production and conservation offered, while the imminent questions of jobs and economic development have also been addressed (much of that on LAKE) … BECAUSE once we, our COMMUNITY, can move beyond the idea of biomass, it is time to finally bring the ideas worthy of the 21st century to fruition.
    In the end, though, the most important focus for WACE has been and remains the threat to our commual health, which ultimately does not differentiate between economic class, color of skin, age, or political affiliation. (There is a reason why the mosaic of those who have joined us at our protests is so diverse, as has been pointed out before on this blog.) The State Director of the American Lung Association in Georgia (Mrs. June Deen) has been very clear on this in a letter we received, as has been Dr. Craig Bishop, one of many local doctors who supports our fight against the biomass plant.
    By the way, we have always had signs that go beyond the simple yet important “Biomass? No!” message. “Honk if you are for clean air”, “Go Solar” and others have always been part of our protests. Just check the various recordings and photographs of our events outside City Hall, the Industrial Authority, etc. and you will “see” and even “hear” them … but that may bring us back to Stephen Hawking again …

  3. Lowndes Area Knowledge Exchange

    “BECAUSE once we, our COMMUNITY, can move beyond the idea of biomass, it is time to finally bring the ideas worthy of the 21st century to fruition.” That’s one approach, which may be a long time coming. Meanwhile, others of us will be moving ahead into the 21st century. -jsq

  4. Michael G. Noll

    Uhm … we already are in the 21st century, and the seeds of that new century have been planted some time ago, and by many gardeners (to use another metaphor). It’s just that some weeds keep showing up. As it turns out, community work has certain similarities with gardening …

  5. Lowndes Area Knowledge Exchange

    Some parts of the community are still pushing a nineteenth century industrial model. The seeds of the leading local 21st century industry are being planted right now in south Georgia. Meanwhile, weeding is good, but cover crops can be more effective. -jsq

  6. Ben Donahower

    Just absolutely critical – lead with values!
    The awesome thing about values is for the most people they cut across ideology, party, and otherwise.
    No one is opposed to generosity in principal while there are plenty of people who oppose aid to the third world as an example.
    If you lead with values, you make room for at least open minds on your take on the policy implications of that principal.

  7. Lowndes Area Knowledge Exchange

    THere are people who oppose generosity to anybody but themselves (usually those who have or think they have a great deal of power),
    but they usually don’t like to admit it. Meanwhile, most other people, even their followers, do like generosity and caring for other people, and leading with such values gives a chance that you may be heard by people who might not have seemed to be allies. -jsq

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