An interesting new article today at the Skeptic’s Dictionary, explaining the backfire effect. Several recent papers have found that information contradicting people’s initial beliefs can actually increase their acceptance of those beliefs. This is true in political contexts and in religious context. In one example, people given false information about a Supreme Court nominee (which played to their biases) wound up retaining their heightened negative views of the nominee after having the negative claims refuted.
Skeptic’s Dictionary author Robert Carroll concludes:
The backfire effect should be distinguished from the continued influence effect, whereby one learns “facts” about an event that later turn out to be false or unfounded, but the discredited information continues to influence reasoning and understanding even after one has been corrected. The backfire and continued influence effects should be disheartening to those who think that the first step in arguing with those who base their beliefs on misinformation should be to get their opponents to see what the facts are. Correcting errors may be pointless when dealing with some people. Critical thinkers, one would hope, would want errors corrected. At the very least, getting the facts right might prevent some faulty inferences and prevent one from behaving in ways that could prove harmful. For example, getting the facts straight about tobacco and alcohol would be a first step in guidance toward reasonable actions regarding those substances. Johnson and Seifert have argued that providing a plausible causal alternative, rather than simply negating misinformation, mitigates the continued influence effect. They may be right for some beliefs, but I have not found that providing a causal alternative to astrologers, acupuncturists, homeopaths, parapsychologists, or defenders of applied kinesiology, for example, has had much effect on true believers. Political beliefs, religious beliefs, and woo-woo beliefs seem impenetrable to facts that contradict them. Changes in these beliefs seem more likely to occur outside of direct confrontation with opponents.