We’re chock full of cognitive biases. We covered how we’re prone to believe things that aren’t real just because they appear real. Knowing that fact does nothing for the mind of the person who is confronted with the fact that they believe something that isn’t true, though. In fact, it usually backfires and causes them to double down on the nonsense they believe. It’s called the backfire effect.
The Backfire Effect
Doubling down in the face of contradictory evidence is known as the backfire effect or ‘belief perseverance.’ Remember when Luke Skywalker, with his one good hand, clung to the platform as Darth Vadar told him who his real father was? His reaction was classic backfire effect. He rejected the information and got pissed. Adam Savage, of Mythbusters, made the quote, “I reject your reality and substitute my own,” famous. Even though he’s joking when he says it, this is another example of how the backfire effect works.
People have an innate need to be right. We need to think we understand the world. We need to know that what we believe is true, actually is. When new evidence comes along that shatters the illusion that we’re smart, our first reaction is usually to get angry and resist. The more well-adjusted among us let the new information seep into our brains and slowly squeeze out the bad information we used to believe. The rest, however, have a wildly different reaction.
Take the curious case of Harold Camping
If you recall, he was the guy that predicted the rapture would happen on May 21, 2011. He bought billboards, radio ads, even TV spots on Christian stations. He was so persuasive that the bulk of his followers sold all their possessions and impoverished themselves to pay for the ad campaign. They truly thought they were doing the Lord’s work by saving as many people as possible before the big day. May 21st came and went, so one would assume they’d all get angry and realize they got swindled. One would assume wrong.
Quite the opposite of what we expected, his followers doubled down and asked him for a new prediction. He died in 2013, and still no rapture.
In science, when a new and revolutionary theory is proposed it’s usually met with tremendous resistance. Noted physicist Max Planck once said,
“A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”
Even in his day, the truth never made inroads until those who hated it died off. Incredible thinkers have butted heads for generations because of this cognitive need to stick with the status quo. What can you do when even the most intelligent people in the world, those with specific training in seeking the truth, have a hard time accepting it?
How to prevent it
The reality is, we all experience the backfire effect to some extent. If you believe a thing, it will be very difficult to convince you, even with overwhelming evidence, that it’s not true. Charts, graphs, books, and lectures won’t change your mind. The only thing that will is allowing yourself to accept the truth. You can do it over a long period of time as most do. Or you can try to adopt the band-aid approach and just rip out the old information and replace it with the new stuff. Either way, it’s going to be painful.
Ask any die-hard Cleveland Browns fan how hard it was to admit to themselves that their team sucks. You’d be hard pressed to find anyone who says otherwise on either side of the fandom fence right now, but 20 years ago it was exactly the opposite. A fan would fight you for uttering those words.
Long and short, facts don’t change minds. Only painful introspection does. If you find yourself angry because someone shows you, clearly, how you’re wrong, you’re in the grip of the backfire effect. The only thing you can do is listen to that voice in the back of your head that says, “Hey, he makes a valid point.”