Backfire Effect


Have you ever felt like it was pointless to argue your point?

Perhaps you have tried to explain yourself or your side of something but have gotten nowhere because it feels like the person on the other end isn’t even listening. The other person seems to be cognizant of only their view, and seems to refuse to even hear anything you’ve said. You may even have facts or proof and they refuse to see it. How can people totally tune out something so relevant or obvious to you?

When challenged with facts, the idea is that most people would incorporate new information into their thoughts and reconsider it but in fact, there is a human phenomenon called the “Backfire Effect” that shows us we often do the opposite.

David McRaney, author of “You are now less dumb” talks about how this is possible.

“Once something is added to your collection of beliefs, you protect it from harm. You do it instinctively and unconsciously when confronted with attitude-inconsistent information. Just as confirmation bias shields you when you actively seek information, the backfire effect defends you when the information seeks you, when it blindsides you. Coming or going, you stick to your beliefs instead of questioning them. When someone tries to correct you, tries to dilute your misconceptions, it backfires and strengthens them instead.”

Sometimes conversations spiral out of control and get more personal or too example driven to prove a point, but still no one is listening to each other. You hope the other person will hear something you are saying, and something will stick enough for them to consider or you eventually just stop talking about that subject with them.

“When you read a negative comment, when someone shits on what you love, when your beliefs are challenged, you pour over the data, picking it apart, searching for weakness. The cognitive dissonance locks up the gears of your mind until you deal with it. In the process you form more neural connections, build new memories and put out effort – once you finally move on, your original convictions are stronger than ever.” Explains McRaney.

McRaney continues to try to answer the question as to why we are so un-open and negative towards opinions or views that differ from ours.

“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.”

Facts will be repeatedly ignored if people feel threatened. Many may feel powerless or weak when their thoughts are being challenged.  If the presented facts disprove something they have believed to be true their whole life, it can be unsettling, and sometimes devastating. The backfire effect is perfectly natural; even a good way of pacifying ourselves.

Hopefully soon, more people will become less frustrated as they become more educated. Learning about how people subconsciously act or react to new ideas and information can help us prevent inhibiting further conversation.


According to RationalWiki, there are 3 ways to try to combat Backfire effect:

  •  Let tempers cool down a bit before bringing a subject up again. A large portion of the backfire effect stems from people not wanting to be seen as wrong or stupid in front of an audience. Once the flame wars die down a bit people will be more emotionally able to accept your viewpoint.
  •  Stymied by the opponent's selfishness? If possible, you should show your opponent how something would benefit them personally. A lot of people view certain positions as a zero sum game and if you're able to show that it's not (or at least they'd get the long end of the stick) you can bring them around.
  • Just wait for a little bit. Sometimes what you said actually sank in to some extent; they just need some time to mull it over.



What have you do to try to break through someone’s Backfire Effect, did it work?