Left: A new concept with legs. Right: A brain with bug eyes and gaping mouth waving a sword in each hand. Speech bubble: “Have no fear. I will kill it with swords!”
If you’ve ever scribbled a rough denial in the margin of a book that challenged your core beliefs, you’ve experienced some of the emotional turmoil that the backfire effect relies on.
The last time I wrote about this psychological defense mechanism, I was myself in a state of mild resistance to the concept. No one working on public education or social change loves the idea that people are more likely to reject new information than they are to accept it.
Furthermore, in the era of viral falsehood, researchers are discovering that repeatedly exposing people to nonsense helps to build its popular credibility. People are also more likely to believe nonsense they see friends share alongside fact, and debunking lies doesn’t help.
Lies are exhausting to fight, pernicious in their effects, and, perhaps worst of all, almost impossible to correct if their content resonates strongly enough with people’s sense of themselves… Repetition of any kind—even to refute the statement in question—only serves to solidify it.” —Maria Konnikova, January 2017
It’s the amygdala’s resist-or-run response that can make encountering new information risky business. Read The Oatmeal’s account of the backfire effect for more.