The Backfire Effect

The positive reaction to my “‘Reactance’ and How to Talk” prompts me to pursue the theme by referring you to “You are not going to believe what I am going to tell you,” a remarkable, thought-provoking comic on The Oatmeal  — a site written, drawn, and coded by Matthew Inman. I recommend that you read the full, humorous comic by scrolling down from the top, and then consider my selected excerpts and comments that follow below.

No doubt there are no magic bullets that automatically lead to constructive dialog. But some methods, it seems to me, are more likely to enable us to “reach beyond the choir” in many situations — although other methods might be appropriate for a rally or a manifesto that is geared to energize the base.

Inman explores why “we soften to some ideas and not others,” and at times “dig our heels in deeper and believe more strongly in the opposing argument,” in which case “providing more evidence makes someone less likely to believe in an idea.”

He reports that some researchers call that “the backfire effect,” which is reported on more fully in the three-part podcast series discussed in “How to fight back against the backfire effect.”

Inman says:

  • The amygdala, the emotional core of your mind, responds to an intellectual threat as it responds to a physical one.
  • We are biologically wired to react to threatening information the same way we’d react to being attacked by a predator.

This applies in particular to “core beliefs,” which are

the beliefs which people cherish the most deeply…. [They] are inflexible, rigid, and incredibly sensitive to being challenged…. Your brain loves consistency…. If a new piece is introduced and it doesn’t fit, the whole house falls apart. Your brain protects you by rejecting that piece…. The backfire effect … is a biological way of protecting a worldview.

In terms of how to minimize the backfire effect, Inman recommends:

Just remember that your worldview isn’t a perfect house….. The best I can do is make you aware of it, so you can identify the backfire effect in your own brain…. The mind can’t separate the emotional cortex from the logical one.

He uses a unique trick: “I sometimes pretend the amygdala of my brain is in my pinky toe. When a core belief is challenged, I imagine it yelling insane things at me…..”

Inman concludes:

  • And then I listen.
  • And then I change.
  • Because this universe of ours is so achingly beautiful.
  • And we’re all in it together.
  • We’re all going in the same direction.
  • I’m not here to take control of the wheel.
  • Or to tell you what to believe.
  • I’m just here to tell you that it’s okay to stop.
  • To listen.
  • To change.

So once again we hear someone suggest that we talk less and listen more. Remember: the other may be experiencing a backfire effect. And, I dare say, a great way to listen is to ask non-rhetorical questions in order to better understand the other’s point of view — honest, sincere questions driven by real curiosity. But being curious requires not being self-centered, and self-centeredness is widespread, so many people simply are not very curious.

I love Inman’s conclusion: my pinky-toe amygdala is like a leaf on a tree in our achingly beautiful universe, we are all going in the same direction, and none of us need try to control the wheel. What wonderful concepts!

So it’s ok to stop and listen. Then, who knows, you may change.


QUESTION: What methods can we use to minimize the backfire effect?

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