Evolve: Overcoming the Pernicious Backfire Effect

It hurts to be wrong: literally. It's just part of the way our brains have evolved to work. Neuroscientists observed that the anterior cingulate cortex, a part of the brain that processes physical pain, is active when the subject was shown evidence that proved they were wrong (3,4). So yes, it hurts to be wrong. This helps to explain a confounding reality of human thinking called the backfire effect. 

"The backfire effect occurs when, in the face of contradictory evidence, established beliefs do not change but actually get stronger. The effect has been demonstrated experimentally in psychological tests, where subjects are given data that either reinforces or goes against their existing biases - and in most cases people can be shown to increase their confidence in their prior position regardless of the evidence they were faced with” (1).

Not only that, but research conducted by Drew Westen of Emory University suggests that our brains have evolved to resist being proven wrong (2). We intentionally seek information that confirms our beliefs and actively reject or ignore information that contradicts our beliefs. So, we find it extremely difficult and indeed painful to see, accept, or comprehend quality evidence that undermines our current beliefs.  After all, the evidence may cause us to question what we do, who we are, and how we make decisions. 

But there is hope. With awareness of our fallibility, we can overcome this insidious trap. However, it takes serious, fearless, selfless, and continual work to do this. An interesting finding that David McRaney eloquently articulates is, "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” (5). Furthermore, the research conducted by physiologists and sociologists indicates that personal interaction is key to moving beyond bias (2).

I invite you to join me, join us, in developing the courage, curiosity, and skills necessary to embark on this journey. It is not for those who can’t handle the discomfort of uncertainty or the upheaval of change. Both are guaranteed. On the other hand, the process of finding and accepting the consequences (both good and bad) of new, quality information is spectacular and life affirming.

Should you decide to embrace this challenge, rest assured, you are not alone. We at Myotopia, the MSC, and thousands of scientists around the world are in it with you! Let’s evolve beyond the confines of authoritative and rigid mental reflexes and step into the bold frontier of genuine, autonomous, and life changing exploration. In the words of my colleague Charlie McMillin, let’s get excited, "about the process and not the outcome.” Perhaps the fruition of our collective effort will be more useful than repeating the errors of the past. Are you ready?

Have you ever experienced the Backfire effect? We certainly have. What’s your story?

  1. Backfire effect. (n.d.). Retrieved April 17, 2016, from http://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Backfire_effect
  2. Part Two: The Backfire Effect and How to Change Minds | Institute for Public Relations. (2015). Retrieved April 17, 2016, from http://www.instituteforpr.org/part-two-backfire-effect-change-minds
  3. Rainville, P. (1997). Pain Affect Encoded in Human Anterior Cingulate But Not Somatosensory Cortex. Science, 277(5328), 968-971. doi:10.1126/science.277.5328.968
  4. Somerville, L. H., Heatherton, T. F., & Kelley, W. M. (2006). Anterior cingulate cortex responds differentially to expectancy violation and social rejection. Nature Neuroscience Nat Neurosci, 9(8), 1007-1008. doi:10.1038/nn1728
  5. The Backfire Effect. (2011). Retrieved April 17, 2016, from https://youarenotsosmart.com/2011/06/10/the-backfire-effect/