Mind Hacks

The backfire effect is elusive

The backfire effect is when correcting misinformation hardens, rather than corrects, someone’s mistaken belief. It’s a relative of so called ‘attitude polarisation’ whereby people’s views on politically controversial topics can get more, not less, extreme when they are exposed to counter-arguments.

The finding that misperception are hard to correct is not new – it fits with research on the tenacity of beliefs and the difficulty of debunking.

The backfire effect appears to give an extra spin on this. If backfire effects hold, then correcting fake news can be worse than useless – the correction could reinforce the misinformation in people’s minds. This is what Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler warned about in a 2010 paper ‘When Corrections Fail: The Persistence of Political Misperceptions’.

Now, work by Tom Wood and Ethan Porter suggests that backfire effects may not be common or reliable. Reporting in their ‘The Elusive Backfire Effect: Mass Attitudes’ Steadfast Factual Adherence’ they exposed over 10,000 mechanical turk participants, over 5 experiments and 52 different topics, to misleading statements from American politicians from both of the two main parties. Across all statements, and all experiments, they found that showing people corrections moved their beliefs away from the false information. There was an effect of the match between the ideology of the participant and of the politician, but it wasn’t large:

Among liberals, 85% of issues saw a significant factual response to correction, among moderates, 96% of issues, and among conservatives, 83% of issues. No backfire was observed for any issue, among any ideological cohort

All in all, this suggests, in their words, that ‘The backfire effect is far less prevalent than existing research would indicate’. Far from being counter-productive, corrections work. Part of the power of this new study is that it uses the same materials and participants as the 2010 paper reporting backfire effects – statements about US politics and US citizens. Although the numbers mean the new study in convincing, it doesn’t show the backfire effect will never occur, especially for different attitudes in different contexts or nations.

So, don’t give up on fact checking just yet – people are more more reasonable about their beliefs than the backfire suggests.

Original paper: Nyhan, B., & Reifler, J. (2010). When corrections fail: The persistence of political misperceptions. Political Behavior, 32(2), 303-330.

New studies: Wood, T., & Porter, E. (in press). The elusive backfire effect: Mass attitudes’ steadfast factual adherence. Political Behaviour.

The news is also good in a related experiment on fake news by the same team: Sex Trafficking, Russian Infiltration, Birth Certificates, and Pedophilia: A Survey Experiment Correcting Fake News. Regardless of ideology or content of fake news, people were responsive to corrections.

Read more about the psychology of responsiveness to argument in my ‘For argument’s sake: evidence that reason can change minds’.