Firing Back at the Backfire Effect

Have you seen this comic?  It’s pretty great.  It’s long, so go ahead and read it.  I’ll wait.


If you didn’t read it, then I will summarize.  The backfire effect is what happens when someone challenges dearly held beliefs.  Rather than change their mind with your superior facts and reasoning, you drive them further into their own beliefs.  Even if you have all the facts on your side.  Even if their side is demonstrably false.  When people have closely held beliefs, beliefs that help make up the core of who they are, then trying to change those beliefs is like physically attacking them.  Or at least, that’s how the human brain interprets it.  Remember the movie Inside Out?  Well, the core beliefs would be the core memories.  And someone trying to change them would not be welcomed.

Let’s try a real world examples.  Vaccines don’t cause autism, and are wildly safe, and have tremendous benefits.  Yet some people refuse to get them for their kids.  The reason for that is they strongly believe that children should be protected against any and all threats.  If you hear that vaccines cause even a hint of a threat, and you believe it, there’s no way I’m going to convince you otherwise.  Because if you do, then that attacks a strongly held belief that children should be protected at all costs.  This is why vaccine deniers still exist.

Matthew Inman, the man who wrote this comic, reached a rough conclusion.  He decided that there was no solution.  That all we could do is try to listen to each other.  I disagree.  There’s another way.  And that’s to have closely held beliefs that are correct.  Beliefs that stand up against any logical or emotional attack.  Beliefs that are true no matter what.  I have two that seem to work.

  1. Try and make your corner of the world a little better.
  2. I know nothing with complete certainty.

That’s it.  Those are my core beliefs.  Everything I hear I test against those.  This means that if I think something is true, and you have evidence otherwise, I will change my mind.  And if my evidence is equally strong as yours, then I live with the contradiction until I get better evidence.  I don’t advocate for my side, or against yours.  But I will live in a way that makes my tiny little part of this enormous universe a little better.


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