If you ask a social scientist familiar with motivated reasoning and the backfire effect if there is any hope to ever reach people who refuse to accept facts – is there any chance to change people’s minds with evidence, reason, or scientific consensus – they will usually point you to a 2010 paper titled: “The Affective Tipping Point: Do Motivated Reasoners ever ‘Get It’?”
Like most of us, political scientists David P. Redlawsk, Andrew J.W. Civettini, and Karen M. Emmerson wondered if, when confronted with challenges to their erroneous beliefs, do the people who resist efforts at correction ever come around, or are we just causing more harm than good by trusting in facts instead of using some time-tested technique from the emotional manipulation toolkit?
To test this, Redlawsk and his team created a mock presidential election in which people would gradually learn more and more terrible things about their preferred virtual candidates from a virtual news media. Unbeknownst to the subjects, the news stories they read included a precise mix of negative information about their chosen candidates so the effect of those messages could be measured as the negativity increased in intensity.
The scientists thought that surely, at some point, after a person had chosen one candidate over another, a constant flow of negative information about that person would persuade them to reconsider their choices. They expected to see the backfire effect at first, of course, but they believed with enough persistence they might also discover its natural limit.
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In this episode of the You Are Not So Smart Podcast, part three of our series on the backfire effect (part one, part two), we sit down with Redlawsk to learn what he discovered when he pushed people’s beliefs to the breaking point.
Also in this episode, psychologist Stephan Lewandowsky takes us step-by-step through The Debunking Handbook, a guide he and John Cook wrote for avoiding the backfire effect when confronting vaccine and climate change deniers. Originally meant to be an instruction manual for science communicators, it can be applied to just about any situation where the facts are on your side, yet the people who need to hear them are dead set on keeping belief-threatening ideas out of their heads.
Links and Sources
• Johnson, Hollyn M., and Colleen M. Seifert. “Sources of the Continued Influence Effect: When Misinformation in Memory Affects Later Inferences.” Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition 20.6 (1994): 1420-436. Print.
• Redlawsk, David P., Andrew J. W. Civettini, and Karen M. Emmerson. “The Affective Tipping Point: Do Motivated Reasoners Ever “Get It”?” Political Psychology 31.4 (2010): 563-93. Print.
Music in this episode donated by: Mogwai