How Does The Backfire Effect Shape Beliefs?
Why do facts not change opinions?
There is a general misconception that by presenting facts and figures that contradict a person’s existing beliefs we can change their opinion. In reality the backfire effect suggests it can have the opposite effect.
Hilary Clinton certainly tried to use facts and figures in the 2016 US presidential election. However, she failed to win enough votes in the states where it mattered despite Donald Trump running with much more emotive and populist agenda. Why does this happen and how does fake news (or “alternative facts” as Kellyanne Conway refers to them) influence our existing beliefs?
The backfire effect is a psychological bias which is a tendency for people to reject evidence that contradicts deeply held beliefs. As a result our opinions become even more entrenched than before we received the new information.
This may explain why the attacks on Trump’s suitability to become US president during the 2016 campaign had no impact on his popularity among his core supporters. They rejected the information as unreliable or “fake” as Trump refers to anything that is critical of his behaviour.
What causes the backfire effect?
The experience of receiving evidence that is inconsistent with our beliefs causes cognitive dissonance. This makes us feel very uncomfortable and as a defence mechanism our brain creates new memories and neural connections that further strengthen existing beliefs to dismiss the new information and eliminate cognitive dissonance. Over time we also become less sceptical of those ideas that support our beliefs which are often the very same concepts that may be incorrect.
In 2006, Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler (PDF), two leading researchers of political science, created fake newspaper articles on politically sensitive issues. They were written in a way that would support a widespread misconception about a specific idea in US politics.
Once a person had read the fake article they were given an authentic article which outlined a more accurate view of the story. One fake article for instance indicated that the US had found weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) in Iraq. The genuine article clearly stated that the US never found such weapons in Iraq.
Participants who had been opposed to the war or who held strong liberal attitudes tended to disagree with the fake story and accepted the second article. However, those who supported the war and held more conservative beliefs tended to accept the accuracy of the fake article and strongly disagreed with the second post. Further, after reading the authentic article which stated there we no WMDs ever found, conservative leaning participants indicated that they were even more certain than before that Iraq had held WMDs.
Did fake news help Trump?
Research by Ipsos suggests the backfire effect is especially problematic when fake or incorrect news is circulated in the public domain. The danger here is our tendency to be more likely to accept something as true the more times we are exposed to the same information (see Availability Cascade).
During the 2016 US election fake news stories circulated on Facebook and other social media platforms. The Ipsos survey found that fake news headlines were accepted as true by those who were exposed to them around 75% of the time.
Further, people who gave Facebook as their major news source were more likely to perceive fake news headlines as genuine stories compared to those who were less reliant on the social media platform. This dispels the myth that people can tell what is genuine information on Facebook.
“The 2016 election may mark the point in modern political history when information and disinformation became a dominant electoral currency,” – Chris Jackson of Ipsos Public Affairs
Republican leaning voters were more likely than Democrats to accept fake news as being accurate (84% compared to 71%). Similarly Clinton voters were less likely than Trump voters to perceive fake news as being true (58% compared to 86% for Trump voters).
This is probably because most top-performing fake headlines during the campaign were pro-Trump or critical of Clinton. This would support the backfire effect being triggered by the fake news stories. It is also worrying that a majority of Clinton voters who saw the fake news stories considered them to be very or somewhat accurate. The backfire effect appears to benefit those organisations and people who are most willing to communicate inaccurate and false information.
Sean Spicer’s accusation of “deliberately false reporting” by journalists of the numbers attending Trump’s inauguration suggests that Trump intends to try to put doubt in the minds of his supporters about the accuracy of media reports. “Alternative facts” as Kellyanne Conway refers to them are lies.
However, the backfire effect means this can be a very effective strategy for making existing beliefs even stronger among those who support the political party concerned. Fake news can also put a seed of doubt into the minds of others who have no political allegiance.
Trump has not changed his style of leadership since he became President. He relies on creating social media storms to get his points across and is unlikely to want to lose this weapon going forward. He has changed the rules of politics and his opponents need to realise this and begin to adjust their approach accordingly. That should’t mean using fake news, but they should simply their messaging and speak directly to people about their hopes and concerns.
Journalists also need to be careful not to allow President Trump to use such media storms to obscure other more important news. Over the weekend following the inauguration so much attention was given to the disputed numbers relatively little time was given to Trump signing an Executive Order to begin the process of repealing the Affordable Care Act. This will potentially remove medical care for around 1.8 million US citizens. No credible plans are in place to provide these people with replacement cover to a comparable level.
Threat to fair elections:
One of the most worrying lies that Donald Trump has consistently promoted is that there were between 2 to 3 million votes illegally cast during the 2016 presidential election. There is no evidence that there was wide-spread voting fraud at polling stations. Most fraud tends to be carried out with postal voting.
However, Trump’s aim may be to simply make it more difficult for people to vote by increasing the onus on voters to prove their identity. The evidence suggests that these kinds of measures often reduce the likelihood of people from the ethnic minorities to cast their vote. As Trump lacks appeal to many in the ethnic minority community this may be a simple ploy to improve his chances of being re-elected for a second term.
Did fake news influence Brexit?
The Leave campaign in the EU referendum also used the backfire effect to their advantage. According to a source at the BBC the Leave campaign in particular tended to submit statement of debatable accuracy either very late of very early in the day in order to get them communicated in morning new programmes. They understood though that amendments or having to retract inaccurate stories would only occur later in the day and by then the content was already circulating and had done its job.
The backfire effect demonstrates how the human brain instinctively and unconsciously protects your beliefs from harm when confronted with information that is inconsistent with those same beliefs. It does this by making those beliefs even stronger and so more resistant to change.
The danger here is that fake news stories will inevitably lead to beliefs that don’t stand up to rational scrutiny becoming more entrenched. This could result in even more polarised positions for the two camps in American politics. Whether fake new stories were the difference between Trump winning or losing the US election is impossible to know. However, as most fake news was supportive of Trump it is possible that it had an insidious influence.
Clinton should have avoided attacking Trump on a personal level as this just reinforced his supporter’s beliefs about both candidates. The Democrats would have been better to focus on how they could persuade the undecided voters and engage Clinton’s own supporters.
The backfire effects suggests that we should not try changing people’s deeply held beliefs as they won’t respond to rational argument. For marketers this suggests changing habits (e.g. a free trial) or using an emotional trigger to engage competitor’s customers.
However, the backfire effect indicates that marketers should concentrate on trying to win over people who don’t have strong beliefs that run counter to their argument. This means not spending money on trying to attract heavy users of a competitor’s product as confirmation bias is likely to work against you. Further, work by Bryan Sharp indicates that loyal customers of established brands offer little opportunity to increase the frequency of their purchases.
There is also limited benefit from targeting existing heavy users of your own product. Their intent will already be high and focusing on survivors of a process that has shaped their characteristics is a common logical error known as survivorship bias. Marketing spend is unlikely to have any significant impact on their behaviour.
Backfire bias supports the strategy of running a positive campaign that projects both emotional and rational benefits. Inspire people rather than attacking your competitors as the latter is likely to be counterproductive. Prospects are often more likely to respond to an emotional message that taps into implicit or psychological goals than a purely rational appeal.
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EU Referendum – Why emotions won over logic?
Brexit campaign – 7 marketing lessons from the Brexit campaigns.
Referendum – Are referendum a device of dictators and demagogues?
US opinion polls – Why did the polls get it wrong again?
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- About the author: Neal provides digital optimisation consultancy services and has worked for brands such as Deezer.com, Foxybingo.com, Very.co.uk, partypoker.com and Bgo.com.
- Neal has had articles published on website optimisation on Usabilla.com and as an ex-research and insight manager on the GreenBook Blog research website. If you wish to contact Neal please send an email to email@example.com. You can follow Neal on Twitter @northresearch, check out the Conversion Uplift Facebook page or connect on LinkedIn.