The Backfire Effect: Why Facts Don’t Win Arguments

Jun 22, 2015

by BigThink

Let’s say you’re having an argument with a friend about oh, let’s say, Obamacare, or even who the best quarterback in the NFL is. You present your friend with a set of facts that you would think would clinch your argument. And yet, while the facts you present clearly contradict your friend’s position, you discover that presenting your friend with these facts does nothing to correct his or her false or unsubstantiated belief. In fact, your friend is even more emboldened in his or her belief after being exposed to corrective information.

A group of Dartmouth researchers have studied the problem of the so-called “backfire effect,” which is defined as the effect in which “corrections actually increase misperceptions among the group in question.”

The problem here may be the way your friend is receiving these facts. Since your friend knows you and your opinions well, he or she does not view you as an “omniscient” source of information. When it comes to receiving corrective information about a public policy issue, the authors of the Dartmouth study note

people typically receive corrective information within “objective” news reports pitting two sides of an argument against each other, which is significantly more ambiguous than receiving a correct answer from an omniscient source. In such cases, citizens are likely to resist or reject arguments and evidence contradicting their opinions – a view that is consistent with a wide array of research.


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39 comments on “The Backfire Effect: Why Facts Don’t Win Arguments

  • In other words, the ignorant who have no understanding of evidence, mentally “flip a coin” to decide which side of a pseudo-controversy to choose! – unless they have some pre-existing confirmation bias, in which case the closed mind locks up and defends to the refuted claim!



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  • I think there is more to it than just presenting facts and expecting them to be accepted. There is the problem of saving face, of denial, of not comprehending, of stubbornness, of playing dumb (like politicians do) and pure obtuseness! Those are the hurdles one must over come when presenting facts many times. You need a lot more energy than I have to deal with people like this.



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  • let’s flip the scenario around. You caught a young person doing something wrong and point out the evidence. The child then whines and makes a fuss demanding that they ” didn’t do it.” I think what’s really going on here is that people don’t want to ” look bad” and want to maintain a positive social front/ face and will defend it. to look bad in front of others somehow lowers your social standing or lovability or something. people are notorious at one-up-manship and consider your pointing out the facts as a form of putting yourself on a pedestal – as a way to be dominant on the social hierarchy so they shoot back. they want to be viewed as equal or superior to you – but not be ” put in their place.” Looking socially good is more important than being right. People want you to acknowledge them as worthy so that they feel an emotional connection – facts have a way of cutting that tie if it is awkwardly expressed. The social card trumps knowledge nearly every time.



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  • I think we hashed this one into puree a short while back. Must be time for summer reruns.

    I watched public reaction in Greece to the latest quasi-successful negotiations to avoid or at least postpone bankruptcy. The government promised higher taxes, without cutting back on pensions, while protesters in the streets yelped that they could stand no more austerity. One woman cried that she had seen children looking in garbage cans for food. If Greece defaults and leaves the Eurozone everyone will go down with the ship. Which side is bringing corrective evidence to the argument?

    I’ll play it again, Sam. The same old song. Some time ago Richard Dawkins “advised” a pregnant woman whose fetus had been diagnosed with down syndrome, that the the rational course of action with the better outcome for herself, her damaged fetus and society would be to abort the fetus. Screams and howls and banging on doors at RDF, metastasizing to multiple other sites went on for months. When our attention moved on and our rage was spent, few of us had any more teeth to gnash or hair to pull out.

    Where is the evidence to be found when there is nothing but argument? Fortunately Dartmouth researchers have studied the problem and come up with a reasonable solution: DO IT MY WAY.



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  • You can see the effect every day on forums such as this. People very rarely seem to accept the evidence offered by their opponents in argument and change their views. On the contrary, the longer the discussion and the greater amount of evidence offered, the more entrenched the opposing views become.



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  • Looking socially good is more important than being right.

    People want you to acknowledge them as worthy so that they feel an emotional connection

    I think the key observation here is how we “feel” when we perceive that we look socially good.

    The social card trumps knowledge nearly every time.

    I think it’s actually the emotion card.



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  • People very rarely seem to accept the evidence offered by their opponents in argument and change their views.

    In relation to God, was side is evidence based and rational. The other side relies on faith alone.



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  • QuestioningKat
    Jun 22, 2015 at 9:46 pm

    let’s flip the scenario around. You caught a young person doing something wrong and point out the evidence. The child then whines and makes a fuss demanding that they ” didn’t do it.” I think what’s really going on here is that people don’t want to ” look bad” and want to maintain a positive social front/ face and will defend it.

    This is the difference between competent parenting and problem families.

    In problem families (and political systems), decisions are taken on the basis of the amount of fuss the culprit is going to make when corrected. – The short-term line of least resistance, being the lazy option!

    Once a child sees this works to excuse unacceptable behaviour, it’s intensity is increased in future to manipulate stupid weak parents.
    Weak parents (and politicians) simply give in to, or even champion, “pester-power”! (Hence religious exemptions to laws for intransigent fundamentalists – eg. Refusals to vaccinate, accept blood transfusions, or wear safety helmets).

    It is also a good reason for not correcting people when and where they are backed by a sympathetic audience, but instead to do so in private.

    The reverse process can be used when a perverse politician or creationist is in front of an objective audience, and they are made to feel genuine embarrassment about their exposed misconduct or stupidity.



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  • Ewan
    Jun 23, 2015 at 1:40 am

    You can see the effect every day on forums such as this. People very rarely seem to accept the evidence offered by their opponents in argument and change their views. On the contrary, the longer the discussion and the greater amount of evidence offered, the more entrenched the opposing views become.

    The problem with many of these discussions is that many people do not know what scientific evidence is, so simply assert that their opinions are “evidence” of something other than personal or shared fantasies, and muddled semantic ramblings!



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  • In the pointless discussions I used to have with my fundamentalist friend 20 years ago he used to cite his evidence for the existence of god as being the bible. When I asked what evidence he had for anything in the bible being true he said because it was written by god who’s infallible. He was utterly incapable of understanding how a circular argument with no independent start point is worthless. You can’t change the minds of these people. They have no concept of logic or evidence. Everything revolves around the hard wired brain washing they encountered as children which just rejects any conflicting evidence.



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  • People very rarely seem to accept the evidence offered by their opponents in argument and change their views. On the contrary, the longer the discussion and the greater amount of evidence offered, the more entrenched the opposing views become.

    Ewan makes an accurate observation if he’s willing to include himself in this all-to-human defense mechanism. Lorenzo and I just retired from a prolonged argument (Tim Hunt Post) on the reasons for the unequal “representation” (I prefer “participation”) of women in STEM fields. I flatter myself that I acknowledged the negative legacy of bias and discrimination while I saw little willingness on his part to give an inch on the possibility of bio-neurological differences between men and women affecting lower female participation. In any event with each salvo, armed with fresh “evidence,” we became more entrenched in our opposing views.

    The problem with many of these discussions is that many people do not know what scientific evidence is, so simply assert that their opinions are “evidence”

    Alan4 makes an accurate observation if we qualify the assertion with considerable skepticism.

    “True Science” does provide indisputable evidence of effective practice in obvious empirical cases. MMR vaccines have been proven safe beyond a reasonable doubt, except for medically identified exemptions, and conclusively ruled out as a “cause’ of autism. Held captive by an opposing view based on a handful of correlations between the administration of the vaccines and the onset of autism, a hysterical minority attributes cause to the vaccines and urges parents to dig in their heels against public health imperatives. to vaccinate their children.

    The ambiguous danger is that Alan4’s observation applied to other cases can serve the fallacy of argument from authority. Invoking Science in many arguments where complexity, scale, conflicting interest, purpose and identity are entangled, can become a subversive tactic for settling an argument in one’s own favor.



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  • 18
    Lorenzo says:

    I saw little willingness on his [Lorenzo] part to give an inch on the possibility of bio-neurological differences between men and women affecting lower female participation.

    For the sake of clarity, the almost totality of our exchange did not pivot around “bio-neurological differences between women and men”, but a rather specific conjecture of yours: “women are biologically less inventive than men”.
    When asked for evidence in support, you have consistently been unable to provide anything but personal observation.
    Whoever may be interested in reading said exchange, can by browsing the lower parts of this thread starting from here: https://www.richarddawkins.net/2015/06/tim-hunt-ive-been-hung-out-to-dry-they-havent-even-bothered-to-ask-for-my-side-of-affairs/#li-comment-181588



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  • Thanks, Lorenzo, for clarification of our argument: By saying: “the possibility of bio-neurological differences between men and women affecting lower female participation [in STEM fields],” I indeed meant: “women are [probably] biologically less inventive than men”. In any event the topic here is the tendency of humans to cleave to opinions on egocentric grounds in the face of compelling evidence to the contrary.

    My point on this thread is that for many propositions, there is no consensus on what counts as compelling (objective-scientific) evidence. Parties participating in an argument with opposing views often beg the question against each other by claiming that the other has failed to present any evidence while both parties believe they have talked themselves blue in the face presenting evidence against a recalcitrant opponent who fails to accept the Truth after having his/her face rubbed in the facts-of-the-matter.



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  • 20
    Lorenzo says:

    From my pedantic self: you’re welcome!

    I do agree with your point on this thread: the internal definition of evidence is volatile and, being us humans, what we tend to agree upon has more to do with our cognitive biases. That is why, I think, it’s always crucial to bring quantitative, statistically significant data to the party -which usually means to bring a research article, a review or a document that references such things.

    As for the entrenchment experience, I think QuestioningKat really nailed it: it’s a social thing. After a while, being right may become less important than being a faithful combatant for the chosen side. Which is a pity: discovering ourselves wrong on something means, ultimately, learning and improving our knowledge and understanding.

    But a certain amount of disagreement is healthy I think, even necessary to our intellectual growth -a process that doesn’t stop until death comes. Or so it should be, I hope. Because of disagreement, of course, a lot of noise is produced but, sometimes, question arises and with those the yearning to get an answer: that is the beginning of science and knowledge.

    The surest way to corrupt a youth is to instruct him to hold in higher esteem those who think alike than those who think differently
    –Friedrich Nietzsche



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  • Alternatively, you could come to the conclusion that organized religion had long ago realized the same findings of this study.

    That people will basically only believe the facts handed down from an infallible, omniscient source. Those facts don’t even need to be true, the people just need to believe that they’re handed down from some godlike source. Also, that these facts need to never, ever change. Because that would be easy proof that the source is not infallible or omniscient.

    Which basically explains 3/4 of religion right there.



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  • As for the entrenchment experience, I think QuestioningKat really nailed it: it’s a social thing. After a while, being right may become less important than being a faithful combatant for the chosen side.

    Human beings are social animals, cultural animals so we internalizes the views, morals and manners of the reference group(s) that socializes us over time dynamically modified with individual inputs. Put another way, individuals find themselves identifying with various consensus identities fragmented from the larger society based on race, religion, ethnicity, national origin, politics education, socio-economic class, and many other socializing factors and conflicting interests.. Within the welter of identities, we succumb to the illusion that the individual has chosen to be right or wrong, chosen to guide her convictions on the facts of the matter. An American writing a letter to a newspaper claims that she believes “all people are created equal and endowed with inalienable rights..” without realizing she is quoting Thomas jeffereson and reflexively expressing her socialization in a consensus that evolved from the enlightenment over centuries insisting on the primacy of Natural Law, Human rights and Democracy. Herein lies the problematic concept of an abstract objective Truth apart from evolving consensus, evolving ways of talking about interests and purposes and how better to pursue them.



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  • Melvin
    Jun 24, 2015 at 12:47 pm

    As for the entrenchment experience, I think QuestioningKat really nailed it: it’s a social thing. After a while, being right may become less important than being a faithful combatant for the chosen side.

    Rival supporters of football or other sports, would be a good example – encouraged by media hype and rabble-rousing!



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  • Is the article really arguing that facts don’t and won’t change people’s minds ? What a ridiculous proposition ! We only have to look back over the last 400 or so years of modern science to see exactly the opposite. Yes even the RCC changed its mind about Galileo after a few centuries. Of course facts change minds. We all have to face reality, which is why the scientific method is such a useful tool for humanity.



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  • Mr DArcy
    Jun 24, 2015 at 4:51 pm

    Is the article really arguing that facts don’t and won’t change people’s minds ? What a ridiculous proposition !

    I don’t think so.
    There always have been, and always will be, bigoted intractable stupid people, with religious or other ideologies.
    The difference is not in their existence, but what are their numbers, and what positions, do they hold in those societies?



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  • In my personal opinion, this is the actual state of humanity right now. People seems to have an opinion on everything.
    I noticed that most people has the overwhelming desire to say things and believe that everybody should hear their opinions because they are unique. I personally feel better not judging and having an opinion for everything. I rather sometimes to be the spectator and find peace in that way. Too many voices, too much noise. Nobody cares. I have a headache already.



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  • Spot on, A4d. Here’s a personal example. When my daughter transitioned from her crib to a toddler bed her mother and I anticipated the obvious. After the first time or two she got out of her bed and came into our room her mother gently put her back with a gentle admonition. The 3rd time her mother looked at me and I said “I’ll handle it”. I put my daughter back in her bed and explained why she had to stay there. This worked for approximately 30 seconds. The 4th time she got out of bed I immediately put her back in with no coddling or loving message (she had already heard this 3 times from both parents; clearly she was in manipulation/attention getting mode). She got out of bed approximately 20 more times (no joke) with longer delays between attempts. Each time I put her back I did so without saying a word and rather abruptly. The message I meant to convey was ‘you will not win this petty battle’ and further that she had to comply with our wishes. She finally fell asleep. The next night we gave her the same discussion about not getting out of her bed unless she had to use the bathroom. She got out of bed 4 times on night two. By night 3 she did not get out at all and was ‘cured’ of her misbehavior. She knew she wasn’t going to win. This took some effort on our part, but really not that much all told. But you can’t be lazy as parents and expect good results. We’ve used this approach for many other little parental battles and it has worked every time. I now have a wonderful, mannerly 14 year old daughter who is a delight.



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  • I think that there is a case for a balanced structured presentation of facts giving each side of an arguement. Perhaps two columns each posting having a character count limitation with a summary of your point( or YOUR conclusion) and just one URL which would lead you to the source of the facts, so that every one could check . Perhaps twitter could develope this as a ‘slowmo debate’?. Readers would endorse which ever post they use in making up their minds. Postings could be then ranked by order of number of endorsements. This would attempt to get social co-operation into a process which would have hoped ideally that we could do alone in our own minds, but in reality we cut short when it fits mostly with previous prejudice conclusions of our own.



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  • I take your point of course, but I don’t think people are stupid. Yes some are, it’s undeniable, but even they look before they cross the road. Apart from entrenched views, IMO, part of the problem of having a clear view of the world is the sheer amount of ‘stuff’ which bombards us every single day.

    IMO facts do change people’s minds, the problem being which ‘facts’ will they accept as such. As I pointed out the RCC took over 3 centuries to admit that Galileo was right about the sun, and the solar system, and that the RCC was wrong. It happened. Yes we have a long way before the RCC’s version of God controlled evolution is abandoned, but maybe, just maybe, the RCC, among others will be on their last legs by then ?

    I certainly hope so.



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  • I think that there is a case for a balanced structured presentation of facts giving each side of an arguement.

    There are ambiguous ways we use the term “fact” in various kinds of propositions that counter the definitive assumption that “fact” picks out an essential, sometimes fixed, feature of some comprehensive abstraction we call reality: … It is a fact that the earth revolves around the sun. It is a fact that the cat is on the mat. It is a fact that Beethoven is dead while my friend Mary is a living, breathing human being. It is a fact that the Eiffel Tower is in Paris, France… Does the earth still revolve around the sun if a solar super nova vaporizes the planets in their current orbits. Is the cat on the mat after he walks off it? Is it a fact that Mary is a living breathing human being if ,unbeknown to the speaker, she has been crushed flat as a pancake by a double decker bus while crossing the street on her lunch break? Is it a still a fact that the Eiffel tower is in Paris, France if it is moved to Berlin, Germany?

    The ambiguous contradictions may seem to be nothing more than clever tricks of language, but they touch on the privileged , transcendent, persuasive power we attribute to the word in discourse when the term pragmatically references justifications for the way we believe phenomena work consistent with our descriptions shaped by our interests and purposes -a point of view if you will.

    I read an article where the writer confirmed the fact that a fetus is a human being supported by indisputable biological evidence. As soon as this fact becomes recognized by educated consensus, he argued, everyone would recognize that abortion is equivalent to murder. But no, in the sense that the fetus is not a person it is not a human being. But no in the biological sense it is a human being. Pro-life and Pro-Choice opponents could have much more useful conversations if they talk about how pertinent practices work from various points of view consistent with various interests and purposes rather than the alleged objectively decisive but in fact vacuous fact-of-the matter

    The fact is that the earth revolves around the sun is redundant.” “The earth revolves around the sun” has gradually acquired universal consensus over centuries through growing inter-subjective agreement with accurate scientific evidence. “The earth revolves around the sun” is a currently accurate description of planetary orbital motion. We have no obligation to “explain away” or argue with the facts of the Ptolomaic system of geocentrism



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  • Melvin
    Jun 26, 2015 at 4:21 am

    It is a fact that the earth revolves around the sun.

    This is the vernacular imprecise use of language which gives an approximate understanding of the astronomy – but which is simple enough for the uneducated to understand.

    In precise scientific terms:- “the Earth revolves on its axis while orbiting the barycentre of the Solar-System.” (Which always remains within the Sun or the coronosphere.)

    Animation – Two bodies with a major difference in mass orbiting around a common barycenter.

    As you say the words, being a label, may not give a full description of the the underlying facts.

    We have no obligation to “explain away” or argue with the facts of the Ptolomaic system of geocentrism

    Pseudo-science loves the false dichotomy of asserting its viewpoint as being of equal status with solidly evidenced science – usually combined with the negative-proof fallacy of trying to shift the burden of proof on to the sceptic challenging the refuted unevidenced assertion!



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  • Alan4; I find nothing to disagree with in your astute observations. Still I would make the pragmatist linguistic qualification explained above by way of distinction.

    The article references “a set of facts” regarding Obamacare when no one knows how the program will actually work out in practice. Liberal critics, often supporting, as I do, a single payer system, point out that the Achilles heel is likely hidden in the unintended consequence of requiring a universal mandate to purchase medical insurance from private for-profit companies. Will costs remain budget neutral because of competition for customers among various carriers or will the network of private insurers collude to form a monopoly with a captive consumer base, thereby raising premiums, consumer costs and ultimately budget deficits to unsustainable levels? Everyone is better served with striving for accurate descriptions of how the program works rather than self-serving “facts and truths” that appear to settle the matter independent of stakeholder interests and purposes. The authors might just as well have cheered, “I support Obamacare. Hip, hip, hooray!”



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  • Science fortunately doesn’t depend on pop culture to be right or wrong, and is powerfully internally vetted by scientists. As far as changing minds, that doesn’t even always happen within science. A common meme among the early pioneers of quantum mechanics concerned the ossified classical physicists, often in powerful positions, who refused to accept the paradigm shift. The most famous statement of it is usually attributed to Max Planck: ‘Science moves forward one funeral at a time.’ Works for other things as well.



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  • The RCC doesn’t have a hive mind. People like the Borgia popes had to die off and be replaced by modern thinkers for this to change.



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