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The Backfire Effect: Holding on to Myths for Dear Life

When we point out to someone that a favorite myth isn’t a real thing, in many cases people will hold onto that belief even more than before.

This is often true, even in the face of scientific evidence or facts that we might think are hard to refute.

Aging Pink Rose WG2 Willow Glen
But wait, my whole idea is wilting!

When attempts to persuade a person to change a belief have the unintended result of strengthening that belief, this is called the backfire effect.

The Misconception: When your beliefs are challenged with facts, you alter your opinions and incorporate the new information into your thinking.
The Truth: When your deepest convictions are challenged by contradictory evidence, your beliefs get stronger.
~David McRaney

There are many myths in the world of learning and performance. Some of them have been debunked for years, but they just won’t die.

  • We only use 10% of our brains
  • We learn 10% of what we hear, 20% of something, and 30% of something else…
  • Only 10% of training transfers
  • We are left- or right-brained
  • We have seven slots in working memory (plus or minus two)
  • People learn more from instructional games than from classroom instruction
  • We’re more creative if we procrastinate
  • Paying people more for good performance is not motivating
  • Gender discrimination doesn’t impact performance, at least not in this century

What to do when someone is acting on information that recent research shows isn’t so useful (or may even be harmful)?

It can be difficult to persuade people to reconsider long-held beliefs, especially if those beliefs:

  • Originally came from (or sound like they came from) a scientific source
  • Sound logical to the person holding them
  • Just “feel right”

According to a recent article, this approach may help:

  • Try not to repeat the myth (for some reason, repetition makes it seem more real to the person holding on to it).
  • If you must mention the myth to talk about why it’s not true, state ahead of time that you are about to mention some misleading information.
  • Keep your explanations simple and brief.
  • Offer an alternative to replace the false belief.

Additional helpful thoughts:

  • Be careful when presenting both sides of an argument. If you do this, then people often reject the side they don’t agree with and latch on to the that supports their beliefs.
  • If your listener is open to learning something new, see if you can form a partnership to explore the idea and figure out the correct answer.
  • People sometimes feel embarrassed when confronted with evidence that their favorite idea doesn’t work the way they thought it did.
  • Remind people that we’ve all had beliefs that later turned out to be false. It’s all about learning, and that’s fine.
  • If emotions run high, give people time to calm down.
  • Point out how the new (more correct) point of view can be beneficial.
  • Ask, “If you were going to change your mind (not saying that you will change your point of view right this minute, but), what do you think it would take to change your mind?”

It can be frustrating when efforts to debunk a myth are met with stubborn (even irrational) resistance. But realizing that we humans often react this way can help. Sometimes it pays not to be in a hurry. And always, always it makes sense to remember how we felt when someone debunked a cherished myth of ours. It happens to everyone. Remembering that can help.


Review | The Backfire Effect: The Psychology of Why We Have a Hard Time Changing Our Minds

Post | The Backfire Effect: When Correcting False Beliefs Has the Opposite of the Intended Effect

Post | The Key to Rational Argument: Reframe It as a Partnership

Post | The Backfire Effect: Why Facts Don’t Win Arguments

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