When You Contradict Someone’s Bias, Don’t Expect a Backfire (But Don’t Expect Easy Persuasion Either)

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Wyoming Representative Liz Cheney has just been stripped of her leadership role as the number three Republican in the House. The precipitating incident seems to be that she would not silence her claim that the 2020 Presidential election was not stolen and continuing to criticize the former President for leading his party in an undemocratic direction. Given that the vote against her from colleagues seemed to be overwhelming, you could see these recent events as an example of the “Persuasive Backfire” effect, in which information offered against a hardened belief only ends up strengthening the target audience’s commitment to that belief. Among these lawmakers, and a not-insignificant portion of the public, the belief in widespread election fraud persists as strong, or stronger, than it was on January 6th, and now serves as a basis for unprecedented efforts to restrict the vote around the country.

In the case of Cheney and the Republican Conference, there is politics and not just psychology involved. But at a persuasive level, the backfire effect is real. There is a question, however, about how common this effect is. Popular press coverage on the backfire, and on persuasive resistance in general, has tended to play it up. But a recent research article  from Brendan Nyhan of Dartmouth College (Nyhan, 2021), provides a review of the social science research on persuasive resistance and builds a good case that it isn’t all due to a backfire effect. “Corrective information seems to only rarely cause backfire effects among the public,” Nyhan writes, “but its effects are often modest, decay relatively quickly, and fail to cumulate into sustained decreases in many common misperceptions.” In this post, I will take a look at this research as well as its hopeful – and less hopeful – implications for practical persuaders. 

The Misinformation on Misinformation Research

Nyhan notes that, in popular press accounts, the backfire effect has been oversold, and  misinterpreted by some as a message that corrections never work but, instead, always backfire. That focus stems from his earlier research (Nyhan & Reifler, 2010) in which, in two out of five scenarios, the original beliefs of test subjects became stronger in response to corrective information. In other words, give a climate change skeptic information proving it, and they emerge from that as an even stronger skeptic. In the research since, however, the picture has become clearer that this effect is not the norm. “Backfire effects are extremely rare in practice,” Nyhan now writes, arguing that many studies show the “emerging consensus that exposure to corrective information typically generates modest but significant improvements in belief accuracy.”

The Hopeful Message

I have met litigators who believe that when a case touches on deeply held beliefs — about race, sexuality, personal responsibility, corporations, for example — then people are very unlikely to change their pre-existing biases in response to evidence in the court. In that thinking, the attorney’s best hope is attained through strikes rather than through persuasion. But the hopeful message in the research is that persuasion is still possible. The evidence that corrective information generally works, to at least some extent, is a bright spot in what we might see as a “post-fact” age. That part of Nyhan’s message is reassuring: “Recent studies indicate that exposure to factual information often induces parallel changes in opinions across partisan and ideological groups rather than backlash.”

While it still isn’t a good idea to act as though you can change someone’s mind in voir dire (if they say they’re biased, believe them, and don’t try to talk them out of it), once the trial starts, it still works to put your faith in the better evidence.

The Less Hopeful Message 

Even though corrective information helps, according to the research it doesn’t help a lot. Particularly when you are looking at dedicated beliefs in misconceptions, corrective information seems to have a relatively short-lived effect: “We rarely observe consistent and systematic reduction in mistaken beliefs over time.” The research points to a few reasons why, even in the absence of a backfire effect, the gains are modest: In general, our motivations and our group identities reassert themselves as the recollection of the corrective evidence dims over time. In addition, the influence of elite opinion leaders can outstrip our willingness to understand, believe, remember, or use the new information. So the reality is that it is still quite hard to use evidence to talk people out of their baked-in misconceptions. As Nyhan notes, “These factors may be difficult to overcome in the contemporary period, which combines historic levels of political polarization in the United States with communication technology that allows false information to move farther and faster than ever before.”

In a New York Times piece on Nyhan’s research, “Belonging is Stronger than Facts: The Age of Misinformation” by Max Fisher,  the emphasis is on this less hopeful side of the equation. There are a few lines that students of contemporary persuasion should take to heart:

As much as we like to think of ourselves as rational beings who put truth-seeking above all else, we are social animals wired for survival. In times of perceived conflict or social change, we seek security in groups. And that makes us eager to consume information, true or not, that lets us see the world as a conflict putting our righteous in-group against a nefarious out-group.

So it is still essential for persuaders to embrace the dictum that is as old as Aristotle: Know your audience. The technologies that have made this objective even more critical have also made it quite a bit more accessible: A social media search will often tell you what in-groups your potential fact-finders identify with, and that in turn will tell you a lot about their beliefs and their hardened attitudes, allowing you to guide your strikes, your adaptation, and your persuasion.

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Nyhan, B. (2021). Why the backfire effect does not explain the durability of political misperceptions. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 118(15).

Nyhan, B., & Reifler, J. (2010). When corrections fail: The persistence of political misperceptions. Political Behavior, 32(2), 303-330.

image credit: Motifake.com (meme site), edited by author

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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