Mental Health Moment: The Backfire Effect

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by Nancy Bergeron, RPsych | [email protected]

Have you ever argued with someone until you are blue in the face, only to find they have dug in their heels and are holding onto their side of the argument even stronger? Their perspective is so wrong (in your view) and it’s like you are talking to a wall? You have just created what is called the backfire effect. The backfire effect is a cognitive bias that causes people who encounter evidence that challenges their beliefs to reject the evidence, and to strengthen their support of their original stance. The backfire effect means that showing people evidence which proves that they are wrong is often ineffective, and can actually end up backfiring, by causing them to support their original stance more strongly than they previously did. The backfire effect is a subtype of the confirmation bias, which is a cognitive bias that can cause people to reject information which contradicts their beliefs, or to interpret information in a way that confirms those beliefs.

If arguing with facts and evidence backfires, guess what is even worse? Criticizing, blaming, and shaming them for being thoughtless, selfish, stupid, ignorant, or crazy. When was the last time we changed our behavior in response to someone blaming or shaming us?

So, how do we counteract this? With curiosity and empathetic listening. Start by asking questions to show we are truly curious about their answers. Let’s use a current hot button topic example: Deciding to not get a COVID-19 vaccine. How do they compare the relative risks of vaccines and COVID? What evidence are they looking at? What makes them doubt the safety of the vaccine? What have they seen and heard? Once they have shared their views, paraphrase what we heard them say to ensure that we have understood them.

Now they feel like we care about their opinion so we can learn from it, and we are actually having a real conversation. Now we ask the more important questions: What do they want? For themselves and for their loved ones? Chances are, this is where we can find common ground. We all want people to be well, to be free from harm, to be free from coercion. We all want the economy to flourish. Even though we may have very different ideas of what this entails. We all want to feel respected and that our concerns are being heard.

From this place, we can begin to explore our differences with curiosity and empathy. “It sounds like you and I want people to be both healthy and free from coercion. And this virus is sort of pitting those values against each other, and I’m coming down more strongly on the side of health, and you appear to value freedom more. But I hear your concerns about your health as well. And actually, I’m in favor of vaccination because I think it will give us all more freedom”.

We have now created an environment in which a person can feel safe enough to change their mind/opinion on their own. Remember, we are not guaranteeing the outcome. We don’t know how our conversations will go. But when we don’t have actual power over someone, it’s only through a caring and respectful relationship that you can influence them to change. If perhaps you want a loved one to get vaccinated, approach them with empathy and curiosity, to communicate your caring and respect. I challenge you to give this a try the next time you are confronted with a strong opposing topic of discussion.