Updated: Jan 18, 2021
Let’s talk about cognitive biases: BACKFIRE BIAS
The backfire effect describes the tendency for people to dig their heels in and become more sure of their position when presented with contradictory evidence.
Two common ways this presents is that someone may (1) dismiss the contradictory evidence altogether, or (2) dig into the evidence and look for why it is wrong or flawed. The end result is that they have used avoidant tendencies or a hypercritical lens to try and confirm their belief rather than objectively evaluating the totality of evidence.
This cognitive bias is most common when dealing with ideologies, such as political, religious, or dietary ideologies.
Now, this is completely different from someone digging into the counter evidence and integrating it into their framework or explaining why it doesn’t sway them on their beliefs with reference to other research, context, and study limitations. People succumbing to the backfire effect look for ways to dismiss counter arguments rather than looking for ways to strengthen their own arguments.
Now how do we avoid this bias?
The easiest way to overcome the backfire effect is to be aware of when you are becoming emotional over an idea or otherwise searching for evidence that other arguments are wrong rather than why yours is right. This will automatically help you be more objective in your analyses. Also, don’t be afraid to modify your position and incorporate new data, which will inevitably strengthen whatever position you hold.
It isn’t a sign of weakness to admit when you didn’t have all the data available either. It is a sign of radical intellectual integrity. So again, don’t be afraid to modify your position in light of new information. You aren’t wishy-washy, you’re human. A human that is always learning.
When encountering others where this is happening, give a little. If your goal is to sway that person, then find common ground and gently guide them over to your side rather than tearing down their ideas, which is a recipe for defensiveness.
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