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]