Cognitive Dissonance & The Backfire Effect

There is a psychological phenomenon which people often experience in everyday life when presented with new information. In that moment, if the newly presented information contradicts one of your currently held beliefs, you will most likely feel discomfort or uneasiness. This discomfort is a direct result of humans' antipathy for inconsistency between beliefs and behaviors. As a result, something must change in order to assuage or eliminate this dissonance. Within the field of Psychology, this bothersome effect is referred to as cognitive dissonance.

Formal Definition

This psychological effect was first investigated by Leon Festinger, while observing individuals within a cult [1]. As a result of these observations, he later proposed the theory of cognitive dissonance and how individuals attempt to reach internal consistency. He proposed that people have an innate desire to ensure that their beliefs and behavior are consistent with one another. A contradiction between these leads to internal strife, which people fervently try to avoid.


In Festinger's own words, “Cognitive dissonance can be seen as an antecedent condition which leads to activity oriented toward dissonance reduction just as hunger leads toward activity oriented toward hunger reduction. It is a very different motivation from what psychologists are used to dealing with but, as we shall see, nonetheless powerful."


Factors

There are a number of factors which influence the degree to which an individual experiences cognitive dissonance. These are:


  • Beliefs about self or other thoughts which are very personal tend to result in greater dissonance

  • The importance of the beliefs plays a role. For example, highly valued beliefs are typically result in stronger dissonance.

  • The ratio between consonant to dissonant beliefs. That is, the percentage of your total belief system that is composed of consistent to inconsistent beliefs. The higher the percentage of inconsistent beliefs, the greater the cognitive dissonance will be.

  • In general, the greater the dissonance, the greater the pressure there is to relieve the feelings of discomfort generated by this dissonance.


Cognitive dissonance is ubiquitous throughout our lives and can have a profound impact on our actions as well as behaviors. Moreover, everyone around us experiences this phenomenon as well. Therefore, it is important to discuss the different ways in which individuals reduce dissonance when they're confronted with it.


How Cognitive Dissonance is Reduced

There are three ways in which dissonance can be reduced. They are [2]:

1) Change one or more of the attitudes, behavior, beliefs, etc., to make the relationship between the two elements a consonant one.

An individual can change or eliminate a behavior when one of the dissonant elements is behavior. However, this may present a problem for some as certain addictive or well-learned behavioral responses such as alcoholism can be very difficult to change.

2) Acquire new information that outweighs the dissonant beliefs


For example, speaking with a number of Doctors and Researchers regarding vaccine safety will help to ameliorate the dissonance an individual who harbors vaccine-safety fears feels when faced with the decision to vaccinate a child or to get their yearly flu shot. On the other hand, if you are anti-GMO and you repeatedly see labeling laws struck down because the scientific evidence doesn't support this position, it may increase your internal dissonance.


3) Reduce the importance of the beliefs, attitudes, behaviors, etc.


As an example, you could adopt the “live for today” mentality and choose to completely disregard scientists' warnings about Global Warming. That is, you would choose to make no “greener” changes to your lifestyle such as eating less animal products, driving a fuel efficient vehicle, adopting waste reduction habits, etc. As a result, you would be decreasing the importance of the dissonance (i.e., the discrepancy between your lifestyle choices and the warnings of the scientific community) and thus reduce the accompanying discomfort.


It is important to note that it isn't guaranteed that these modes of dissonance reduction will actually work, only that individuals who are in a state of cognitive dissonance will take steps to reduce the extent of their dissonance.

As you are now familiar with the theory of cognitive dissonance, we can move on to discuss the backfire effect, which is a cognitive bias that is a result of an individual's cognitive dissonance.

The Backfire Effect

If people were perfectly rational apes, they would happily change their belief system when presented with convincing evidence. However, as you are most likely familiar from everyday experience, this is rarely the case. When faced with evidence that causes an individual to doubt their beliefs, stubbornness along with the effects of cognitive dissonance cause people to latch onto their current belief system and defend it with fervor. What is more, beyond rejecting the new evidence, the individual may then go on to strengthen support for their belief system. This strengthening of support is a cognitive bias known as the backfire effect.



Cause of the Backfire Effect

The backfire effect is a type of confirmation bias (i.e., a type of cognitive bias) that causes people to recall information in a way that reinforces their preexisting beliefs. When an individual is presented with new information that challenges their current belief system, they will then experience cognitive dissonance and all of the uncomfortable feelings that come with it. As a result, he/she will then begin to construct arguments in support of their position in an attempt to quell these uncomfortable feelings and, subsequently, he/she will begin to believe that there is more proof (wrong or right) in support of their position. Thus, being forced to defend a belief system can lead individuals to support their original stance more strongly than they did prior to being challenged.


Examples

The backfire effect has been observed in a number of scientific studies in various scenarios:

  • A study examined a parent's intent to vaccinate their children [3], found that when anti-vaccine parents are given more information supporting the position that vaccinating children is the best course of action, they sometimes become more likely to believe in a vaccine-autism link.

  • A study examined the misconceptions surrounding contentious topics [5] - such as WMDs (i.e., Weapons of Mass Destruction) and the Iraq war – found that giving people accurate information about these topics often caused them to harden their beliefs in cases where the new information contradicted their preexisting beliefs.

  • A study examined voting preference and how introducing people to negative information regarding a political candidate they favor [4], often causes them to increase their support for that particular candidate.


The Backfire Effect May Not Actually Exist


While the backfire effect is an important cognitive bias for understanding how people might process new information, there is a more recent study that reveals that the effect may not even be present at all. This latest study by researchers Thomas Wood and Ethan Porter evaluated 10,100 subjects across 52 issues of potential backfire over five experiments [6]. They stated the following about their results:


“Across all experiments, we found no corrections capable of triggering backfire, despite testing precisely the kinds of polarized issues where backfire should be expected. Evidence of factual backfire is far more tenuous than prior research suggests. By and large, citizens heed factual information, even when such information challenges their ideological commitments.”


While this study supports the position that the effect may not exist at all, it's important to understand what it doesn't tell us. This study doesn't suggest that people don't confirm or defend their existing beliefs; we do. All of us still exhibit a “pushback effect” when presented with information that creates dissonance due to a challenge to our belief system. That said, this study refutes the case where an individual would foment support for their beliefs as a result of being challenged. In the words of a favorite science communicator of mine Steven Novella [7]:


“To be clear, people generally still engage in motivated reasoning when emotions are at stake. There is clear evidence that people filter the information they seek, notice, accept, and remember. Ideology also predicts how much people will respond to factual correction.


The backfire effect, however, is very specific. This occurs when people not only reject factual correction, but create counterarguments against the correction that move them further in the direction of the incorrect belief. It's probably time for us to drop this from our narrative, or at least de-emphasize it and put a huge asterisk next to any mention of it.”


Now, you may be asking yourself why I went through all the trouble of even explaining this cognitive bias in the first place if it may not actually exist. That said, at this point in time, the research isn't entirely conclusive that it doesn't exist and, erring on the side of caution, it's important to understand what it is so that you can be aware when it may be presenting itself in everyday life. Human psychology is complex and our understanding of it is always evolving. The contention over the existence of this effect or not is a great example of the scientific process in action.


Conclusion


Both cognitive dissonance and the backfire effect are interesting aspects of human psychology that influence us all on a daily basis. While the backfire effect may not be as bad as originally hypothesized, the theory of cognitive dissonance is grounded firmly in Social Psychology. That said, what exactly is the best way to try and convince people of the error(s) in their beliefs? Here are a few thoughts:


  1. Try to remain apathetic throughout the discourse. Emotions tend to make matters worse and they will cloud input from the more rational parts of your brain.

  2. Listen carefully to the other person's viewpoint and make sure that you fully understand their position so that there is no confusion over their argument.

  3. Acknowledge that you understand how or why they hold that opinion.

  4. If necessary, articulate how the burden of proof falls on the one making the claim. Therefore, it is up to them to provide supporting evidence for their position.

  5. ALWAYS show respect.

  6. Make sure that whatever counterargument that you craft is a good argument.

  7. It's okay to finish with an “agree to disagree” if you find yourself at a stalemate. I have found that this is the most respectful way to end a discourse.


These are some strategies that I implement personally when I engage in a discourse with others. However, not everyone that you encounter in life is going to be reasonable and these tactics may not work to help them realize the errors in their ways. Nonetheless, this doesn't mean that your attempt is futile. Whether or not you are successful in changing their minds, the exercise will have forced you to objectively analyze your own worldview as well as refined your skills in logic.



References

[1] Scientific American 207, 93 - 106 (1962). doi:10.1038/scientificamerican1062-93


[2] Harmon-Jones, Eddie and Cindy, Cognitive Dissonance Theory After 50 Years of Development. Zeitschrift für Sozialpsychologie (2007) Volume 38, Issue 1.


[3] Nyhan, Brendan et al. Effective Message in Vaccine Promotion: A Randomized Trial. American Academy of Pediatrics (2014) Volume 133, Issue 4.


[4] Nyhan, Brendan and Reifler, Jason, When Corrections Fail: The Persistence of Political Misperceptions. Journal of Political Behavior (2010) Volume 32, Issue 2.


[5] Redlawsk, David, Hot Cognition or Cool Consideration? Testing the Effects of Motivated Reasoning on Political Decision Making. The Journal of Politics (2002) Volume 64, Number 4.


[6] Wood, Thomas and Porter, Ethan, The Elusive Backfire Effect: Mass Attitudes’ Steadfast Factual Adherence (December 31, 2017). Forthcoming, Political Behavior.


[7] Steven Novella, “Backfire Effect Not Significant”. Neurologica blog. January 4, 2018.