The Backfire Effect

A Quote from the post, “The Backfire Effect.”  To read the full article, please Click HERE.

The last time you got into, or sat on the sidelines of, an argument online with someone who thought they knew all there was to know about health care reform, gun control, gay marriage, climate change, sex education, the drug war, Joss Whedon or whether or not 0.9999 repeated to infinity was equal to one – how did it go?

Did you teach the other party abackfire valuable lesson? Did they thank you for edifying them on the intricacies of the issue after cursing their heretofore ignorance, doffing their virtual hat as they parted from the keyboard a better person?

No, probably not. Most online battles follow a similar pattern, each side launching attacks and pulling evidence from deep inside the web to back up their positions until, out of frustration, one party resorts to an all-out ad hominem nuclear strike. If you are lucky, the comment thread will get derailed in time for you to keep your dignity, or a neighboring commenter will help initiate a text-based dogpile on your opponent.

What should be evident from the studies on the backfire effect is you can never win an argument online. When you start to pull out facts and figures, hyperlinks and quotes, you are actually making the opponent feel as though they are even more sure of their position than before you started the debate. As they match your fervor, the same thing happens in your skull. The backfire effect pushes both of you deeper into your original beliefs.

Two more quotes from the article, this time quoting others:

When our bathroom scale delivers bad news, we hop off and then on again, just to make sure we didn’t misread the display or put too much pressure on one foot. When our scale delivers good news, we smile and head for the shower. By uncritically accepting evidence when it pleases us, and insisting on more when it doesn’t, we subtly tip the scales in our favor.

– Psychologist Dan Gilbert in The New York Times

The human understanding when it has once adopted an opinion draws all things else to support and agree with it. And though there be a greater number and weight of instances to be found on the other side, yet these it either neglects and despises, or else-by some distinction sets aside and rejects, in order that by this great and pernicious predetermination the authority of its former conclusion may remain inviolate

– Francis Bacon

I do suggest you read the article. I can assure you, you will agree wholeheartedly with parts of it, and disagree strongly with parts of it. That is part of the reason for reading it. You can test yourself on it. If the writer says something you already agree with, “compliance bias” suggests you will accept it, pretty much without any real thought about it. On the other hand, in things the writer says that you disagree with, the “backfire effect” suggests that it is doubtful you will spend much time poring over the data and issues. Rather, it is more likely you will throw out the argument quite quickly, and feel more convinced than before that you were always right and the article wrong.

I remember listening to a talk radio show. The host was talking on some topic. It was something from the (American version of) political conservatism. A listener called in with a pretty good argument opposing the radio host. The radio host then asked for the listener’s sources for the information, and the listener was able to give them. Then the host asked him to read directly from the source, and the listener could not because it was not in front of him.  “Ah hah!!” was essentially the response as the host declared the call and the argument against his views invalid. There seemed to be no genuine attempt to take the counterargument seriously– only an attempt to undermine the caller. Strangely, the caller was better prepared then most. He had a well-thought out argument, with supporting references. But that did not matter to the host, and I suppose a majority of the listening audience. What made it a bit silly, I felt, was that so many other callers agreed with the host, giving next to nothing solid to support his viewpoint, and certainly without a rational basis with footnotes. The host made no attempt to challenge the thinking of these (“yesmen”) callers whatsoever.

So why am I talking about this?  Two things.

For one, I (we) see this all the time in Christian circles. Christians listen to the same people saying the same things about the same stuff. If one says something different, Christians change channels, or change church.

Of course, we all do it. I do too. A “Christian prophet” came to the Philippines to say how God has decided to punish the country because… well… essentially because it was not as good as it could be. I found it funny. Lots of “prophets” love to broadcast “prophecies” here because, frankly, Filipinos are pretty accommodating to pretty much everyone regardless what who they are or what they say. A few months after, there was a moderate earthquake in Bohol Island, followed by Supertyphoon Yolanda. People jumped all over it that these proved the veracity of the prophecy (and the veracity of the “prophet”).

Compliance Bias. Why do I say that this is compliance bias? Because the prophecy was mostly worded extremely vaguely so much of it was almost guaranteed to happen (earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and typhoons are “situation normal” in the Philippines). Those prophecies that were much more precise and testable, such as flesh-eating bacteria in Pangasinan, did not happen. But people were so convinced that it would happen, that false reports began to circulate on the Internet… leading to an eventual news article on a major broadcast network in the Philippines declaring it true. But it wasn’t true. People wanted it to be true, because they had, for some reason, placed faith in a prophet. They had a need for it to be true, and were deeply bothered by “facts” that challenged their beliefs. I did a calculation at the time, and I GENEROUSLY gave this prophet a 35% accuracy rating. Of course, none of his prophecies had dates on them… but the numbers certainly haven’t gone up in the 3 years since I did the calculation (and 4 years after the actual “prophecy”).

On the backfire side, typhoons again play a part. Many (most?) climatolotists make the argument that typhoons are getting worse because of global warming. Typhoons are driven by thermal energy in the oceans, so a change in temperature should affect storm violence. So many Christians seem to totally reject this argument. That is fine. I don’t know how real global warming is, as a long-term macro-phenomenon at least. However, the arguments against it seem to be driven by little better than “What do those science folks know anyway” and “It was so cold last February… how silly to believe that things are getting warmer.” As more glaciers melt, the certainty that global warming is bogus by many Christians seems to drift more towards an article of unquestioning faith.

That is a shame… because faith is NOT confidence in one’s own opinion. It is trust in God. But that trust should be mediated by realistic doubts in people and ourselves. A person of true faith should have considerable doubt in his/her own ability to grasp all matters of truth… and have similar concerns with others.

Second, backfire Effect is important in sharing one’s faith as well. The idea that sharing one’s faith is more effective by coming up with clever debate points, is flawed. Few people change their minds by clever arguments. I remember one time years ago in church, our pastor then was trying to encourage people to give more money to the church (“tithing”). Each Sunday, he would have one of the church elders get up and say why people should tithe. One of the elders, a good man I believe, got up and began to say why people “gotta tithe.” In the church were two ladies who were visiting the church. One of them stood up and during the elder’s speaking, asked a question.

“Ummm… excuse me. Excuse me. Why does someone have to pay money to earn God’s love?”

The elder did not know how to respond. There was rumbling in the congregation… our church does not practice interactive services… and soon two ushers came over to escort that one woman and her friend out of the church. As they did that, a friend of mine, who loves apologetics (and arguing with people generally), got up and said, “I have an answer to that!!” But it was too late, fortunately– the moment was lost. I really doubt that my friend would be able to convince them of the importance of tithing, and I doubt the woman was able to challenge the notions on tithing in the church.

<Curiously, there was a positive result the this situation however. The pastor, thankfully, stopped asking elders to come forward and tell people why they should tithe after that. And since that particular pastor was not good at handling money, leading to huge problems with personal and church debt, hopefully some people kept God’s money in their own storehouses for awhile.>

Expressing God’s love is a better foundation for sharing faith than coming up with debate points in an atmosphere of argument. Some believe that response to salvation is through the leading of the Holy Spirit. While this may be true, there is often the unspoken assumption that sharing the message of God is always positive, or at worst neutral. But the Backfire Effect suggests that a poor or confrontational presentation may actually work against the work of the Holy Spirit in a seeker’s heart and mind. The goal is not to say “I told the truth. I did my job.” The goal is to adorn the message (Titus 2:10) to encourage response.

As my dad liked to say (quoting or approximating Benjamin Franklin I think): “He convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.” Trying to convince someone that he or she is wrong is unlikely to be effective.

If you disagree with me, that is fine. But take the time to think why you disagree and be open to the minuscule possibility, perhaps, that you are wrong. I will do my best to do the same.

No promises.

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