Why You Can’t Win An Argument On The Internet

Why You Can’t Win An Argument On The Internet

No matter who you are, you’ve likely spent some amount of time arguing online with someone you just couldn’t believe was incapable of accepting the truth. That’s because they were susceptible to something called the backfire effect, and so were you. When our beliefs are challenged — or even debunked — we have a tendency to believe them even more.

Title image by XKCD

David McRaney is back with another great post on his blog that proves the way you think is wrong, You Are Not So Smart. This time he’s showing why your impenetrable biases are, indeed, impenetrable. The basic idea comes from how we handle negative information versus positive information:

A thousand positive remarks can slip by unnoticed, but one “you suck” can linger in your head for days. One hypothesis as to why this and the backfire effect happens is that you spend much more time considering information you disagree with than you do information you accept. Information which lines up with what you already believe passes through the mind like a vapor, but when you come across something which threatens your beliefs, something which conflicts with your preconceived notions of how the world works, you seize up and take notice. Some psychologists speculate there is an evolutionary explanation. Your ancestors paid more attention and spent more time thinking about negative stimuli than positive because bad things required a response. Those who failed to address negative stimuli failed to keep breathing.

But there’s much more to it than that. McRaney points to several studies showing how people are willing to completely ignore scientific proof that their beliefs are wrong. It’s fascinating, but also very disturbing. Our ability to function together is jeopardised by our inability to consider that we might be wrong. Be sure to read the full article, although you may disagree with it even more if you deeply believe you have no strong biases.

The Backfire Effect [You Are Not So Smart]


  • Sort of explains religion as a whole really, you are indoctrinated as a child and come adulthood you are fully brainwashed! I also have little time for internet trolls who, simply for the gratification of self indulgence, prod peoples beliefs in order to do nothing more than provoke a reaction.. There is nothing wrong with an argument that has a point, but there is no need to be a dick about it!!

    • Nodeity,it seems to me that you have just done this very thing yourself, “simply for the gratification of self indulgence, prod peoples beliefs in order to do nothing more than provoke a reaction”.

      You have just prodded my beliefs and… yay! You’ve provoked a reaction.

      I really hope you were being sarcastic in posting this… otherwise, you’re a “dick”.

      • Oobi – Insecurities will also provoke a reaction. No one wants the little voice in the back of their head to be right when they’ve spent their whole life trying to ignore it!

      • Yeah, if I upset you, I’m sorry! This may have been a little too aggressive for my post, however I wasn’t actually trying to troll religion, even though I obviously have a very strong opinion on the subject. Keep in mind though you yourself are perpetuating the problems brought up in Adams post “McRaney points to several studies showing how people are willing to completely ignore scientific proof that their beliefs are wrong.”

        • I agree with Oobi…there was a much better way of making your point than the route you took; not everyone that is religious is an indoctrinated sheep, just like not every aethiest is an arrogant ass, if you’re picking up what I’m putting down.

          • I do understand how apologies work, however what you provided to Oobi was what is known as a “backhanded apology”. Protip: it’s not an apology if you’re starting with “I’m sorry” and ending with “their beliefs are wrong”.

            You have the right to your beliefs, just as Christians have a right to theirs. Yours are not any more “right” or more entitled than theirs are – that’s why they’re called beliefs, not facts.

            I’m a Christian, married to an aethiest; in our household, we have a “leave well enough alone and respect each others’ beliefs” opinion, not one that attempts to belittle each other for what they choose to believe in.

          • Also, look at it this way: the next time you go to get on a soap box about people choosing to believe in a religion, ask yourself – what is the difference between you denouncing people for choosing to believe in something and an evangelical christian choosing to denounce you for not believing in god/jesus etc?

          • The difference in that case is that one position starts from the premise “I don’t believe this because it can’t be tested scientifically”, rather than “We have different beliefs both of which have some evidential basis”. But the fact both sides are denouncing each other is a common element of unpleasantness.

          • “But the fact both sides are denouncing each other is a common element of unpleasantness.”

            This is exactly the point I was attempting to make, Angus 🙂 Christians get just as tired of hearing Aethiests go on about how stupid we all apparently are just as much as Aethiests hate being told that they’re apparently going to hell.

            The difference, however is that people rarely call Aethiests on their s*** for the hypocritical moral superiority stance they take 😛

          • “[…] as much as Aethiests hate being told that they’re apparently going to hell.”

            I would argue that since an Atheist denies the existence of deities due to a lack of evidence, they simply ignore the claim of a Hell existing at all.

            “[…] hypocritical moral superiority stance they take […]”

            Religion and Morality are different beasts. Sure, one may lead into the other, but it is possible to have one without the other.

            Also, as stated previously, Atheists are looking for scientific evidence when questioning the existence of a deity. Religious people simply come back with “[telling atheists] that they’re apparently going to hell” (as you put it).

          • I really love it when Christians get on their soap box and bleat about atheists calling them on the fact that there is absolutely no empirical evidence that an all seeing all knowing magical dude is watching over us and will embrace us in heaven when we die… Now climb down off the box and grow up…

          • This actually drives home the point you were originally making about people trolling for a reaction based on other people’s beliefs being dickish, given your comment here is just exactly that.

            You’re the one that bought up Christianity in the first place in the forementioned comments about self-indulgent trolling; I’m curious here…are you attempting to openly prove the point?

            Now, as far as Christians go I’m about as laid back as we get – I don’t believe evolution and science need to be mutually exclusive to religion (personally I prefer to interpret the “days” of the bible as being metaphors for leaps in evolution) and I’ve never once tried to convert anyone or to tell them to believe what I believe; as far as I’m concerned, as long as I have MY ducks in a row, other people can think whatever they want.

            Where I have a problem, is with people (and note, this goes for my fellow Christians too; I cringe at people trying to convert others to their belief systems make themselves feel good or to feel superior) not being prepared to accept the fact that others can be quite happy believing or enjoying ideas that don’t match their own.

            Fair enough if you don’t want to believe in what they believe in. It’s your life, it’s your right. As long as your belief system works for you, be it God, Science, Vader or the FSM, then good luck to you…but why try and attack and tear down other people’s beliefs and thoughts? How does it hurt you and your day to day life if someone doesn’t share an opinion with you?

            Obviously something has happened in your past that makes you angry at religion and religious people in general. I don’t know what Christians did to you, but on behalf of my brethren I sincerely apologise that we’ve left you with such a feeling of ill will – I’m not going to begrudge you that because I don’t know you and for all I know you’re entirely justified based on past experience. All I’m saying is that it’s not fair to tar us ALL with the one brush and that goes for ANY situation: not all Christians are evangelical bible bashers. Not all Muslims are terrorists. Not all Asians are good at math. I could go on and on, but I think I’ve made my point there.

            Has this discussion made me told tighter to my opinions and beliefs? No, because I think you can always find ways to question and learn about what it is that makes us who we are and if we stop discussing we will reach a innovative dead end as a species; but do I think it’s made you cling to your beliefs when you’ve been questioned?


          • While it is fine to make this point for things like religion which is (mostly) harmless, what about things like climate change. You have a whole subset of people who refuse to believe the science and that is delaying action which affects everybody. In my opinion it is not always ok to let anyone believe what they want especially when that belief hurts the rest of us.

          • Richard, the science must still be heavily debated on climate change, because we don’t even really understand the basic cause and effect. What if, for instance, carbon was not actually the main cause of climate increase? What if we spent billions of dollars reducing carbon which, in essence, did nothing (or rather, worse than nothing). There are still strong Scientific opinions (and evidence) both ways. Granted, there’s an overwhelming majority that believe it’s quite certainly happening, but nonetheless there are others out there that are saying that it’s no cause for alarm and fits entirely within low-rate climate change. You have got to understand that, based on the bias of the one presenting the information, data can be skewed in any way, shape, or form.

            However, let’s consider that the IPCC is on the money when they say that by 2100 the temperature will be, on average, 3 degrees hotter than current. That is an average, not everything. Generally, it means the colder areas will get less cold, not really the hotter areas getting much hotter. The city that you live in now already has a hotter pattern due to the ‘Urban Heat Island’ Effect, so in essence, more than 50% of the population are already experiencing temperature increases (simply by living in a city), their average temperature may only change by 1 degree by the turn of the century. While that’s not great, it’s certainly not apocalyptic.

            But, again, after reading that article it’s made me reconsider even writing this. You’re obviously not going to listen to a pseudo-anonymous armchair commenter on Lifehacker, and as a result the backfire effect works its wonders. When someone produces results different from your beliefs, it strengthens your beliefs. So, perhaps, this comment is quite simply making you believe in the negative aspects of climate change even more, which is a shame.

            All I say is, actually go and look at the data, read both sides, remove your bias for a minute, and think about which makes more sense. Either that a 3 degree overall change will bring hell onto the Earth, or it will quite simply be a minor discomfort to most of us. Hell, not even that. We have air conditioners now, and by the turn of the century we may even have skin temperature regulators, or other technologies that I can’t even begin to imagine.

            In other news, Callie, I think you give good arguments and want to recommend you to the site Quora. You will find many fantastic people there.

            Nodeity was a bit of a prick about it. He has only considered how OTHERS have been brainwashed but never about how HE has been brainwashed. I’m assuming this is an instance of “Oh, that only makes sense to other people, not me.”

          • Oh and I also don’t believe there’s a “physical” place called heaven or hell where we’ll all end up – I do believe however that how people treat their fellow man and creatures will determine how at peace they can be with themselves. Like many other Christians, as far as I’m concerned, Heaven and Hell are just states of mind – happiness and anguish. There’s no Man upstairs telling me to do the right thing, but there sure is that little voice of conscience in the back of my mind saying “I have a bad feeling about this…”

            Do I want to live a miserable life being horrid to my fellow man and kicking puppies, or do I want to treat people well and get that back in return and be satisfied with my life?

            You will always have people that will be hard-line and interpret things literally; that there’s a man upstairs that dictates my life and the world was made from scratch 2000 years ago. Those people however are the exception, not the norm. You’ll always hear more about the sensational crazies though because that’s the point – they’re sensational.

          • “McRaney points to several studies showing how people are willing to completely ignore scientific proof that their beliefs are wrong”
            Given that my original post was a simple way to test “Adam Dachis” the author’s point. Also given that I did in fact apologise! No matter how disingenuous ‘YOU’ believe it to be, you certainly have risen to the task! Oh my what a tirade.. almost like a temper tantrum.. As for thinking that Christians did something heinous to me to get me to not want to believe, bloody hell!! The reason I don’t believe is because, as I mentioned earlier, “there is absolutely no empirical evidence that an all seeing all knowing magical dude is watching over us” it doesn’t get much simpler than that. Now please leave it be, for some reason you’ve blown this into a crusade, which considering you say you are laid back about it, you certainly aren’t showing it here. I apologised “Oobi” and it ‘WAS’ sincere, but I will not do the same for you!!

          • You know I do think if you are going to respond to comments, you really should read the commentary you’re responding to in full instead of only taking pieces of it – that way you actually understand the whole point being made.

            You’re using a lot of rather angry language about tantrums, exasperation and exclamation marks instead of proper punctuation…now, I’m quite calm and reasonable here, you’ve not made my blood boil or upset me up in any way (I’m merely a “teal deer” kind of writer) but I’m definitely seeing that I seem to have gotten you rather upset. Upsetting you wasn’t my intention; my intention was to discuss alternative points of view…which is part of the point of the larger article we’re commenting on, no?

            I believe you’ve bought the proverbial gun to a knife fight, nodiety. You’ve come spoiling for a fight and looking to argue, I’ve come looking for discussion and discourse. You set the topic of Christianity and made your perspective clear, but you don’t want discussion from the other camp at all? That’s not open flow of dialogue, that’s dictation.

            Now while English is my second language, I don’t believe I have any problems making my points coherently in your language – while I’m very confident in the points I’ve posed, if however I have somehow managed to drastically miss the mark to make you fly off the handle so, then mea culpa.

            I also wasn’t saying that Christians did something heinous to you to not make you want to BELIEVE what we believe (again, I don’t care what you believe in, that’s your business and I’m not going to try and change it), you’ll not find that anywhere in my comments – if you go back and read it again you’ll see that it was a commentary on your general ill will towards Christians on the whole to make such blanket statements about us being indoctrinated or brainwashed that I was apologising for and I did sincerely mean it. It’s not a “I pity you because you’re not one of us” comment to give you a back-hander, it was a genuine apology for what comes across in your responses as a slight, harassment or something of the ilk. Remember – not every Christian wants to convert you or make you feel bad because you’re not one of us.

            You haven’t gotten me upset about my belief choices at all, but if you’re not willing to discuss politely and reasonably without either attacking or thinking you’re being attacked, we’re at a dead end for discourse. Disappointing really because I do like to discuss how religion and science don’t need to be mutually exclusive, but thems the breaks. Either way nodiety, good luck to you in your life whoever you are 🙂 I’ll leave it with a Danish proverb for you about discussion and flow of new ideas – a closed window doesn’t provide fresh air.

  • Holy crap, those commenters above certainly proved the point of the whole article!

    I’m not gonna bother reading it, but it looks like a lot of back-and-forth essay writing going on there.

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