There are some individuals who, when confronted with facts that clearly conflict with a belief, will become even more entrenched within the belief, not less. The observation that this happens is known as the backfire effect.
The “backfire effect” is a name that was first coined by Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler, for the finding that, given evidence against their beliefs, people can reject the evidence and believe even more strongly.
- The skeptics dictionary has a nice article all about this here.
Now here is a very good example of not only what this is all about, but also illustrates the better alternative strategy. Craig Silverman writes about it like this …
Which of these headlines strikes you as the most persuasive:
“I am not a Muslim, Obama says.”
“I am a Christian, Obama says.”
The first headline is a direct and unequivocal denial of a piece of misinformation that’s had a frustratingly long life. It’s Obama directly addressing the falsehood.
The second option takes a different approach by affirming Obama’s true religion, rather than denying the incorrect one. He’s asserting, not correcting.
Which one is better at convincing people of Obama’s religion? According to recent research into political misinformation, it’s likely the latter.
The study was led by Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler, two leading researchers examining political misinformation and the ways in which it can and can’t be refuted, among other topics. Their 2009 paper, “The Effects of Semantics and Social Desirability in Correcting the Obama Muslim Myth,” found that affirming statements appeared to be more effective at convincing people to abandon or question their incorrect views regarding President Obama’s religion.
Now that is a truly fascinating discovery, and is well-worth knowing about when engaging in a discussion with those that embrace crazy beliefs or conspiracy theories.
So what should you do?
Focus on the facts, and do not give such heavy emphases to the myth.
In other words … something like this (hat tip to John Cook) …
The key point
Having the right information is often not enough, knowing how to think critically, and also how to present it all effectively also matters, and part of the process of working out what does work is to understand what does not.
“When your deepest convictions are challenged by contradictory evidence, your beliefs get stronger.” – David McRaney