The Backfire Effect

More on the press’s inability to debunk bad information

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.

I found their work courtesy of an exhaustive post on You Are Not So Smart, a blog about “self delusion and irrational thinking” by journalist David McRaney.

McRaney spends several thousand words explaining the “backfire effect,” which he nicely summarized in one sentence: “When your deepest convictions are challenged by contradictory evidence, your beliefs get stronger.”

As I detailed in a recent column, the backfire effect makes it difficult for the press to effectively debunk misinformation. We present facts and evidence, and it often does nothing to change people’s minds. In fact, it can make people dig in even more. Humans also engage in motivated reasoning, a tendency to let emotions “set us on a course of thinking that’s highly biased, especially on topics we care a great deal about”.

These two important cognitive effects can have a significant impact on society and debates in the public sphere. They also end up negating some of the debunking and reporting work done by the press. My recent attempts to understand the backfire effect and motivated reasoning has transformed into a search for ways to combat these entrenched human phenomena.

I sought out Reifler, an assistant professor of political science at Georgia State University, to learn more about his and his colleagues’ findings regarding affirmative statements and their effect of the Obama Muslim myth. I asked him if there are other other ways of presenting information that can debunk lies.

“I’m sure that there are but I don’t know what they are,” he told me, ever the cautious researcher.

Nevertheless, he did offer some encouragement.

“I think we’re moving in that direction,” he says.

Part of the process of discovering what works is to rule out what doesn’t. I listed a some of them in my previous column, and Nyhan and Reifler provide more evidence in a 2010 paper, “When Corrections Fail: The Persistence of Political Misperceptions,” published in Political Behavior. (Note that their definition of a correction is different from the ones used in the press.) Their study saw respondents read a mock news article “containing a statement from a political figure that reinforces a widespread misperception.” Some of the articles also included a paragraph of text that refuted (or “corrected”) the misperception and statement.

One article, for example, led with President George W. Bush talking about Iraq and the possibility it “would pass weapons or materials or information to terrorist networks.” It then transitioned to a graph that cited information from a CIA report that Iraq did not in fact possess illicit weapons at the time of the U.S.-led invasion. Would these corrective paragraphs influence respondents who believed Iraq had WMDs?

As the researches write, the corrective sections “frequently fail to reduce misperceptions among the targeted ideological group.”

Then there’s that familiar term: “We also document several instances of a ‘backfire effect’ in which corrections actually increase misperceptions among the group in question.”

So perhaps a single, credible refutation within a news article isn’t likely to convince people to change their views. But other research suggests that a constant flow of these kind of corrections could help combat misinformation. The theory is that the more frequently someone is exposed to information that goes against their incorrect beliefs, the more likely it is that they will change their views.

“It’s possible there is something to be said for persistence,” Reifler said. “At some point the cost of always being wrong or always getting information that runs counter to what you believe is likely to outweigh the cost of having to change your mind about something. We need to figure out what is the magic breaking or tipping point, or what leads people to get to that tipping point. I think we’re just scratching the surface.”

He pointed to a 2010 paper in Political Psychology by David P. Redlawsk and others, “The Affective Tipping Point: Do Motivated Reasoners Ever ‘Get It’?”

The researchers sought to determine if a tipping point exists that could cause voters to abandon motivated reasoning and view facts in a more rational way.

“We show experimental evidence that such an affective tipping point does in fact exist,” they write. “… The existence of a tipping point suggests that voters are not immune to disconfirming information after all, even when initially acting as motivated reasoners.”

This tipping point is far from being identified, but it’s encouraging to think that repeated efforts to debunk misinformation, or to simply to spread the truth, may have an effect.

One final cause for hope is that Reifler and Nyhan are conducting studies to see if the visual presentation of information can impact its level of persuasion. As none of this work has been finalized, Reifler declined to share details on the record. But the overall point is that after decades of research that has demonstrated the human propensity for motivated reasoning and the backfire effect, researchers are moving towards identifying keys that can unlock our closed minds.

Good news, right? Not exactly, according to Reifler.

He said researchers first began looking at these forms of persuasion after World War II in order to understand how Nazism could persuade millions of people. As a result, researchers were initially encouraged to discover the human resistance to persuasion.

“The difficulty of persuading people was seen as good thing,” Reifler said. “It meant that it would be more difficult for really, really terrible things to happen. Anytime we’re talking about persuasion or getting people to change their beliefs there is always a good side and a dark side.”

Correction of the Week

An extract of an online opinion piece appeared in the newspaper, headlined Will and Kate’s mask slips (9 June, page 31). It argued that while, pre-wedding, it was announced that the future Duke and Duchess of Cambridge would not be employing household staff, this image of modernity had now been “compromised by the news that they are advertising for a housekeeper, butler, valet and dresser to serve them in their new home of Kensington Palace”. The couple’s press secretary, Miguel Head, asks us to make clear that: “At most, they may employ one (a cleaner-cum-housekeeper), who may be part-time. We never ‘announced’ that the couple would ‘not be employing any [domestic staff]‘ after their wedding. What we have always said is that the couple have no plans to employ domestic staff at their home in Anglesey, but in London they have use of domestic staff at Clarence House, the home that they have hitherto shared with the Prince of Wales. The additional one part-time, or one full-time, cleaner has come about because the couple are taking their own home in London away from Clarence House.” Elsewhere the piece referred to “damaging stories of royal profligacy past: Charles with his staff of 150, and an aide to squeeze his toothpaste for him”. Of this, Miguel Head writes: “The Prince of Wales does not employ and has never employed an aide to squeeze his toothpaste for him. This is a myth without any basis in factual accuracy.” - The Guardian

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Craig Silverman is the editor of and the author of Regret The Error: How Media Mistakes Pollute the Press and Imperil Free Speech. He is also the editorial director of and a columnist for the Toronto Star. Tags: , , , , ,