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The Backfire Effect & Those Crazy Email Forwards

The day after I posted about the backfire effect, I received a forward from a good friend. You know the kind of message—full of heated passages about this or that awful thing that some person or group is supposedly doing.

04-17 Spring

There’s a Blue Sky in There Somewhere

I’m writing out what happened to show how keeping the backfire effect in mind can be beneficial.

The introduction to the forwarded post said something like:

“I really hate to say this, but the longer the current [group I’m totally against] is still [functioning], the more [completely opposed to them] I become.”

I looked up the facts, and there wasn’t much about the forwarded email that was true.

I wanted to let her know that it was a big pack of lies, or at least, errors.

But I kept thinking about how providing facts or evidence often backfires. I wanted to say several things, but every time I tried to write a sentence, I thought, “That’s not going to get through. It will only backfire.”

So here’s what I told myself not to do:

  • Don’t “reply all” to let her know that her post is totally full of it, thereby also (possibly) creating a cascading backfire effect among some of the folks on her list.
  • Don’t send a kindly-worded message suggesting that she check the veracity of inflammatory messages before sending.
  • Don’t be attached to the idea that she might change her view.
  • Don’t argue at all.

Here’s what I did instead:

I sent back a message to my friend only. If she later wants to let the other folks copied on the message know that there were issues, that’s fine. I didn’t know most of them, and it wasn’t my job to “save” them from errors. After all, they can look it up themselves, if they are inclined.

The body of my message said this (remembering to focus on what might be beneficial to her):

“I send along this link in case it might alleviate a small part of your heartburn about this.”

The link was to an objective analysis of the forwarded email (no drama, no bombastic rhetoric, just the facts).

She could click on the link, read the article—or not. Totally up to her.

I received a big “THANKS” back, and she’s going to forward the link to others.

Maybe it’s possible to use what we know about the backfire effect to help someone—someone who has been taken in by misinformation.

We can possibly even use that knowledge to help ourselves if we notice that we are clinging to an idea that just might not be true.


Post | The Backfire Effect: Holding on to Myths for Dear Life

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