Well that backfired

History of a bias that got ahead of itself.


Why backfire effect is interesting; the existence of weapons of mass destruction; who did it? Not Me; save the date for pre-ordering my book; some quick links.

One of the most interesting biases, in my opinion, is backfire effect. It’s known as the bias that explains why you can’t just hit someone over the head with facts and expect them to change their minds. In fact, they often dig their heels in even more, doing the exact opposite of what you wanted them to do.

The reason it’s interesting to me is because it’s not true, and the way we respond to this information tells us more about what it is than the actual definition does. Like many biases discovered over the last 50 years, this one has been proven tough to replicate, and therefore isn’t really an official bias anymore. You can read the full story here but the short version is that the original 2010 study by Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler has only ONE belief in it, and when others tried to replicate it with 52 additional beliefs, that one turned out to be the only one that triggered backfire effect on people.

Oops! 🤪

The question they asked about was related to the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. One people learned that they didn’t exist, many of them became more convinced that they had existed, but had just been destroyed before we found them.

The much easier explanation for this behavior is to go back to the ways we reduce cognitive dissonance (which I talked about related to the bread-sliced bagels last week). If we react to disconfirming evidence with denial first, and that denial is challenged, we fall back to justifying the new evidence with new qualifications.

In other words, it’s an extension of our very robust belief defense mechanisms (like confirmation bias) paired with our in-group favoritism (because the Iraq War was certainly a partisan issue).

This is why I think the giant list of 200+ biases is silly sometimes. In many cases, we have succumbed to publication bias and incentivized academics for inventing new words to describe snow. So we get backfire effect, anti-conformity, boomerang effect, reactance theory, reverse psychology, and more all with tons of in-fighting and reconciliation between theories — because academics exhibit the same backfire effect when their theories are challenged! Isn’t that funny? It might only be funny to me.

Meanwhile, a black hole larger than our solar system winks at us from 50 million light years away.

Don’t look away.

Speaking of looking your deepest fears in the eye, I hear that my book is going to be available for pre-order starting next Tuesday. Save the date. 🙈

Quick links

  1. Reading: How To Do Nothing, by Jenny Odell and The Paradoxa Manifesto by Troy Camplin

  2. Obsessed with: Change A View

  3. Thinking about: A Directory of Advice that Works, by Tony Stubblebine

  4. Listening to: Henosis, by Joep Beving