If you have ever spent more than 2 minutes on social media then you will have discovered that there are people out there who are not simply wrong, but also demonstrate a complete immunity to little things like facts. Absurd notions prevail that range from medical quackery being promoted as the best, and science (the stuff that is actually evidence based) being touted as myth, and yet when you tactfully and carefully attempt to correct what appears to be a misunderstanding and point out the facts … nothing changes.
Why is it like this?
We are essentially emotional creatures and will form a relationship with an idea or belief. Our own cognitive biases then kick in and prevents us from letting go.
We tend to seek out information that confirms our prevailing beliefs and to also dismiss information that conflicts – this tendency is known as “Confirmation Bias“.
We really do not like being wrong and the discovery that something we have invested in might not be correct is rather uncomfortable, so we resist letting go of ideas and can become rather possessive and loyal, so much so, that we end up holding tightly to conclusions that conflict with the prevailing evidence.
Now this next bit is fascinating. People will naturally dismiss and not seek out evidence that conflicts with their thinking, but what happens when you confront people with conflicting information?
Rather oddly their belief actually grows stronger. This is known as the “backfire effect” and is a term coined by Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler to describe this observation.
Why does this happen?
What appears to be happening is this – people will naturally select individuals that they socially interact with to be those that generally agree with them. When they then face a conflicting voice then they reject this minority and favour the majority, their social group. You can perhaps think of it as tribal loyalty at an emotional level. Take for example a religious person being confronted with a contradiction in the bible. This contradiction is dismissed with the thought that the person pointing it out is misinterpreting it, and even if it is blatantly obviously correct, it still gets dismissed with an assumption that while it cannot be explained by them personally, there is an answer and so they remain loyal to their social group and loyal to the idea.
What should be evident from the studies on the backfire effect is you can never win an argument online. When you start to pull out facts and figures, hyperlinks and quotes, you are actually making the opponent feel as though they are even more sure of their position than before you started the debate. As they match your fervor, the same thing happens in your skull. The backfire effect pushes both of you deeper into your original beliefs.
—You Are Not So Smart – The Backfire Effect
Bubbles & Social Media
The rather interesting effect that social media has is that it acts as a creator of social bubbles. As people connect they will naturally connect with those that share ideas they agree with, and also dump and block people who share ideas that they do not agree with.
The net effect is that when on Facebook then you are probably inside a bubble that has been naturally selected to contain just postings from people that you generally agree with .. your tribe. That can insulate people from reality, especially those that embrace utterly daft and quite dangerous ideas.
There is a constant stream of utterly absurd and yet quite popular ideas in circulation … 9/11 was really a conspiracy by the US government, aliens are kidnapping humans, evolution is a myth and creation is a fact, vaccines cause autism, climate change is a myth, etc… and clearly if you engage, then even when well-armed with facts, you will encounter an astonishing immunity to both rationality and reality.
How can you effectively engage in persuasion and change minds?
All is not lost and by being aware that this happens, and will continue to happen, you can then strive to counter such cognitive biases.
- Be genuinely friendly and do not act like a jerk … descending upon people like a pile of bricks with facts to set them straight will antagonise and entrench.
- Have some empathy, we are all prone to making mistakes and accepting things that are not actually true … doing so does not make us gullible fools, but instead it confirms our membership of the human race.
- Socratic questioning is often a far more effective means of persuasion than simply listing facts
Now for a bit of fun. The website literallyunbelievable.org collects the Facebook comments of people who have embraced a satire article from The Onion and actually accepted it as “truth”. Number 1 from their top 10 list is this …
1. Sadly, I think entries 10 through 2 explain how he got elected pretty well