By Auguste Rodin - Photography at the Soumaya Museum, taken by ProtoplasmaKid, Public Domain,
philosophy, Political Theory

On the “Backfire Effect”

tl;dr – how do you convince people of your worldview when “facts” based on yours only tend to reinforce their own? Are you open-minded enough to accept challenges to your own worldview?

I’ve been thinking more and more recently about something psychologists call the “Backfire Effect.” Both with respect to recent elections, and with respect to – mostly – online discussions. The Backfire Effect is the empirically noted tendency of a lot of people to hold on to their previously stated positions even firmer once these positions have been “factually” disproven by someone else.

Now, it’s important to say that people doing this – most people, apparently, potentially, if only at times, I would hope, including myself – probably aren’t opposing the principle that reason, or facts, should prevail.

They are, however, likely asserting that reason, or fact, is not always an absolute term, but relational one. One that fundamentally depends on axioms – the foundational assumptions about the nature of the world, about logic, and anthropology, that are assumed to be true and thus need no further explanation.

Unfortunately, outside of the realm of the likes of gravity, particularly with respect to all questions regarding human organisation, or “human nature”, there’s not many axioms that are universally shared. Which means that there aren’t as many facts as there are people trying to convince others that their thought process is wrong.

And that’s what makes the idea of “factually disproving” someone so problematic, and ultimately, backfiring. It’s not simply factual errors that cause people to close up and rally behind their axioms, thus conveniently allowing them to disregard the information presented as a “fact” – based on a different axiomatic structure – as untrue.

It’s not facts that threaten deliberation, it’s disagreements about how we can derive facts. And given the increasing heterogeneity of social structures, axiomatic structures are more and more political – which, to a degree implies the forceful establishment of official axioms, thereby giving them a clear-cut advantage over others. Sadly, I doubt that it is commonly understood despite its fundamental importance for social organisation.

So, tl;dr, here’s my questions for you to ponder over the weekend: how do convince someone that their worldview is wrong. Do you think you are open-minded enough to accept challenges to yours?

image source: Photography at the Soumaya Museum, taken by ProtoplasmaKid, Public Domain,

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