FIRST Robotics Competition Blog

The Backfire Effect

Oct 06, 2017 Written by Frank Merrick

I learned something interesting this week.

Wikipedia has an entry on ‘common misconceptions’ which I found interesting. Before I provide the link, I should give you a warning that one of the misconceptions, out of the many listed, is about the etymology of a commonly heard, but vulgar, word. If you think seeing this word will bother you, please don’t click. If you are OK with seeing this word, here’s the link.

I had some of these misconceptions.* I think my reaction on learning corrective information on these topics would be typical of most other people; “Oh, interesting.” I’m happy to have learned something that corrected misinformation I had in my head. But these particular facts are not a big part of my worldview. My identity does not hinge on the shelf life of Twinkies.

If on the other hand, someone was to present me with information that contradicted a belief I held that was a core element of my worldview, that was fundamental to how I saw myself and to the lens through which I viewed the world, I’d have a different reaction. I’d likely argue against or dismiss those facts in an effort to stay psychologically whole.

Not only would I argue against the new information but there is strong evidence I, and just about everyone else in the same situation, would double down on the original beliefs. Presented with contradictory information, beliefs often strengthen. This is called the “Backfire Effect.” It’s real, and it has significant implications in our increasingly contentious world. We have difficult decisions to make, as individual nations and as a whole, with long-term consequences, and need to develop consensus around ‘true facts’ if we want to have a hope of moving forward. The Backfire Effect shows us that simply lobbing more facts at someone with a different position on a key topic is not only often a waste of time and energy, but can also actually be counter-productive.

I learned about the Backfire Effect on the You Are Not So Smart podcast. It was a three-parter, episodes 93, 94, and 95. If you are interested in this topic at all, I strongly recommend them. Not only do they go into detail about the Backfire Effect, but they also suggest ways you can avoid it when making an effort to change opinions. Fair warning; each episode is about one hour long. If you are not sure you want to make that kind of commitment, I get it. You can always just listen to the first 15 minutes of the first episode, and if you don’t think the rest will be worth your time, stop listening. You have the power!

Hope everyone has a great weekend!


*I recognize that Wikipedia entries are not always accurate. My working assumption, in this case, is that most, but maybe not all, of these misconceptions truly are misconceptions.

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If you like learning about common misconceptions there is this great t.v. show on the TruTV network. It's called "Adam Ruins Everything". It's quite an interesting show, and talks about a lot of common misconceptions. I highly recommend it.

It is amazing how constant human nature remains through time. Plato's "Allegory of the Cave" touches on this topic! The man who returns to the Cave to educate others is killed for his efforts. How's that for a historical comparison?! :) While I recognize it is very hard to realize when one is in this situation, i.e. doubling down on beliefs when exposed to facts contradictory to those beliefs, I am trying to train myself to feel no shame when admitting I was wrong and feel respect for others when they do the same. Great post.

"Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" was not composed by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart when he was 5 years old; he only composed variations on the tune, at the age of 25 or 26


Following that Wikipedia link now provokes more thoughts on Mr Mozart....

There is the eerie notion that Mozart could have ended up with a life like Michael Jackson’s. Both Mozart and Jackson’ were talented musicians at a ridiculously early age. Both their fathers were exploiting them at age five. Like Michael Jackson, Mozart might have had a career as the greatest entertainer of his generation.

As a child he was wowing royal audiences throughout Europe with his amazing feats, playing the piano upside down and backwards, blindfolded, and with his nose.

He could have built a reputation as the ‘Kaiser of Pop’ in the 18th century!

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