6 Ways to Counteract the Backfire Effect

Cognitive biases are patterns our brains use when processing information. For better or worse, they help us construct meaning out of bits and pieces of information. While these heuristics – or ‘mental shortcuts’ – exist to save our brains precious energy and time, they also affect our daily social communication skills and interactions. In short, these mental shortcuts can have negative consequences by drastically distorting reality.

Cognitive biases help our brains tackle four information-processing challenges:

  • Information overload
  • The need to construct meaning
  • The need to make quick decisions
  • How to know what needs to be remembered.

One of the many cognitive biases, the Backfire Effect*, is a particularly relevant bias that agricultural communicators (this means you, as you talk to consumers about your farm or industry) should be aware of.

The Backfire Effect occurs when you [erroneously] believe that by putting more information out there – more facts, stats, did-you-knows – that it will fill the information gap. (This itself is known as the Deficit Model.)

However well-intentioned, communications that try to correct misinformation or debunk myths can illicit stronger objections than existed before your listener was aware of any new information. In other words, people double-down on their beliefs when presented with contradictory information. Corrective information actually increases misperceptions and reinforces current beliefs.

A hilarious example of this can be found on The Oatmeal: http://theoatmeal.com/comics/believe

Survival Tip

If knowledge doesn’t necessarily lead to a change in behaviour or attitudes the problem may be the way people are receiving information.

We believe that by challenging someone’s beliefs with facts we’ll be able to alter their opinion, subsequently prompting them to incorporate this new information into their thinking, behaviour, and attitude.

Unfortunately, the reality is that when someone’s deeply held belief system for how they view the world (‘worldviews’) feels threatened by contradictory evidence, their beliefs only tend to get stronger as part of the ingrained knee-jerk ‘fight or flight’ mode. Having to adopt new worldviews is a huge undertaking: it calls into question a person’s complete identity, and is, therefore, plain old uncomfortable.

So, how can you get people to hear, consider, and act upon your information rather than backfire in your face?

  1. Add it to their collection – Once something is added to a person’s collection of beliefs, they will do almost anything to protect those beliefs from disruption. Find small openings in their belief box by connecting to what they value, what they love or fear, or what passion prompts them to action. Appeal to their identities, not only in terms of who they are now, but who they’d like to be.


  1. Change the narrative – Using metaphors or analogies, develop stories that convey the information you want your audience to hear, but which align with their beliefs and offer a level of permission to continue feeling as they already do. Stories frame knowledge in a manner that is more lifelike and recognizable. Stephen Denning, a leadership and organizational storytelling coach, says, “If you make an argument, you’re implicitly asking them to evaluate your argument – to judge it, debate it, criticize it – and then argue back, at least in their minds. But with a story, you engage your audience – you are involving them with the idea, asking them to participate with you.”


  1. Realize that you probably won’t win – “When you start to pull out facts and figures, hyperlinks and quotes, you are actually making the opponent feel as though they are even more sure of their position than before you started the debate. As they match your fervor, the same thing happens in your skull. The backfire effect pushes both of you deeper into your original beliefs,” says David McRaney of the website and podcast ‘You Are Not So Smart.’


  1. Keep emotions out of the conversation – There are few things as frustrating as trying to get someone to see your point of view, but once emotions start to get heated, it’s difficult to come back from the brink. Respond rather than react.


  1. Discuss, don’t attack – Once someone’s defenses are up you’ve probably lost an opportunity to engage in any kind of constructive dialogue and, consequently, the persuasion window has slammed shut. Philosophy scholars Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber wrote in their paper on argumentative theory that “People who have an opinion to defend don’t really evaluate [others’] arguments in a search for genuine information, but rather consider them from the start as counterarguments to be rebutted.” Social psychologist Anatol Rapoport was convinced that the only way to effectively engage someone with different beliefs was to re-express their beliefs, then list points of agreement and anything you learned from them, before expressing your position.


  1. Show them that changing facts doesn’t necessarily mean changing their worldviews – Understand that people internalize their sense of self – their social identity – by their values, norms, and roles and acknowledge why they might hold a particular opinion. Remember that when someone’s identity is threatened, they will feel attacked. Frame information in a way that helps them realize that new information doesn’t have to conflict with who they are, thereby making it less identity-threatening and more receptive.

Bonus: And maybe it isn’t even true – The newest evidence (by the same team that introduced us to the Backfire Effect) is now questioning whether it even exists.

And in the end, “In a world blossoming with new knowledge, burgeoning with scientific insights into every element of the human experience, like most people, you still pick and choose what to accept even when it comes out of a lab and is based on 100 years of research,” says McRaney.


Interested in learning more about cognitive biases and how you can use this insider knowledge to create better farm-to-consumer conversations? Ask us about our FSG Conversation Toolbox.


*Since this blog post was published, some newer research concludes that the backfire effect is not as significant as previously believed. Click here to read more about this.

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