The Boston Sunday Globes’s “How Facts Backfire” (July 11, 2010) details research indicating that “new and provable facts” often do not persuade us to shift from our preconceived opinions. Philosophers, teachers, politicians and preachers operate on the assumption that educating misinformed listeners will change minds. Instead, researchers have found that our beliefs often dictate which “new and provable facts” we choose to accept.
Researchers say cognitive dissonance rises when we are faced with information contrary to our opinion. This stirs up a defensive response: we try to push new information away; deny its reliability; or mitigate its relevance. Researchers call this response “backfire.” The Globe quotes political scientist Brendan Nyhan: “The general idea is that it’s absolutely threatening to admit you’re wrong.”
We only have to look within our families – whether a marriage, sibling or parent-child relationship – to see this happening all the time. Or maybe in an unguarded moment we publicly criticize a peer and then feel a compulsion to defend our action and ignore negative feedback from witnesses. The fact is, all of us have a breaking point where we can resort to backfire. It takes great discipline to resist doing so.
Join me in my next post as we explore this issue more.