The Backfire Effect

Last week, I was in a Twitter conversation around large-scale testing that went basically like this:


Tweeter-er: Those leaves are bad because they’re poison ivy.
Me: Hey now, those are oak leaves.
T: No. They’re poison ivy. See the veins?
Me: Both have veins. *points to label*  Oak leaves.
T: They’re labeled wrong.
Me: *toddles under the weight of evidence showing they’re oak*
T: Poison ivy being fed to children! (which is then RTed by lurkers)

By my count, this Tweeter-er and I have danced this particular dance at least four times around the floor. Each time, the Tweeter-er thanks me politely and then goes off to join conversations about the danger of the poison ivy oak leaves. Each time, I rant a bit, I rail a bit, I proclaim my dislike of oak leaves in the first place, I triple-check to make sure they really are oak leaves, and then I realize that I’ve made it worse.

One of my favorite essential questions is what’s the point of writing an argumentative essay if we rarely change our minds? It’s a humdinger of epic proportion. Just think about it. What’s the point of opinion pieces or editorials? Yes, we rally the troops on the other “side.” We preach to the choir on our “side.” Sometimes we change minds but ever so rarely.

We do sometimes change our minds through writing and reflection, but more often, our words can cause others who hold the opposite or a different claim to more firmly believe they’re right.

  • Salon explored this phenomenon, known as the backfire effect, among Trump voters and parents who do not vaccinate their children here.
  • Big Think gets at it here and explores the role of “omniscient sources.”
  • Brain Pickings and the fantastic Maria Popova got at it and some solutions here.

What does this look like in practice? Peep the increase in declarations and re-commitment to the Opt Out movement right after the US Department of Education threatened to take away money if 95% of students weren’t tested. In other words, the USDOE laid out the facts to say, “you don’t have the right to opt your children out.” The response across blogs and Twitter from the Opt Out movement was basically, “oh yeah? Watch this.”

This isn’t about causation versus correlation, rather it’s that when we hear facts and information that contradict what we believe to be true, we’re likely to feel that we are MORE right, more on the side of good, and that the other side is more wrong and more bad.

I’ve read that the solution is to present emotional appeals instead of facts and logic. Or the approach that claims are better handled than sides or personalities. (My personal favorite.) Yet, it’s unclear if either actually makes a difference. In the meantime, I wonder what I’d lose by saying, “Dude. It’s an effin oak leaf already. Respect my authoritah.”

My hunch is that there is nothing I can do or say as an individual to handle this the right way or mitigate the backfire effect.  Instead, I suspect it’s going to require that anyone engage in educational discussions and discourse accept the possibility, however slight, that we might be wrong. That our claims may not be supported by the evidence or that a claim is standing on shaking ground. So we accept that anything we say might be wrong and live with that discomfort.

The challenge is, of course, there are non-negotiables. Race, equality, equity. People can be unequivocally wrong about these issues and there are times when there is no counter-claim. We can say the wrong thing and do the wrong thing and absolutely need to account for using the wrong word, implying the wrong thing, or not attending to what really matters in the big picture. So how do we reconcile that in 140? How do we talk to each other and through these issues, and poke at the edge of what matters while allowing each other the space to fail and for words to fail us?

All of that said…. dude. It’s an oak leaf.



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