How the Truth About the Backfire Effect Will Set You Free

a western style gun with the barrel twisted to show the latest about the backfire effect

What makes someone vaccine-hesitant? What does that even mean? How should health communicators talk about vaccines? When I started looking for answers to these questions, I kept coming across the concept of the ‘backfire effect’.

It’s been defined as “the ironic strengthening of an original belief in misinformation that is the subject of an attempted correction.”1

So, in other words, by attempting to correct misinformation I could be making the situation worse? That’s the last thing I want to do as a health writer. I had to learn more…

Backfiring Through Time

In the context of health studies, the backfire effect was first explored in a highly cited yet unpublished manuscript by Skurnik, Yoon and Schwarz2 as cited in Schwarz et al3. The manuscript focused on the effectiveness of debunking vaccine myths.4

Skurnik, Yoon and Schwarz2 gave study participants a flyer produced by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the US that referenced an original vaccine myth followed by a truth statement. Other participants were given a flyer which only had the truth statements and no references to the original myths.

After 30 minutes, the group shown the myth and truth CDC flyer misidentified 15% of the myths as true. The researchers pegged this to the participants’ being familiar with the myths and thinking that they were true once their memory for details had faded.2,3

But it’s been pointed out that it’s difficult to evaluate the Skurnik, Yoon and Schwarz2 paper because it was unpublished.4 Also, no-one has been able to directly replicate the findings.4

Thankfully, the current scientific thinking is that the familiarity backfire effect lacks evidence.4 Phew! But, you should still take a cautious approach to debunking and it’s recommended that:

“when designing a correction, the misinformation should always be clearly and saliently paired with the corrective element, and needless repetitions of the misconception should still be avoided.”4

Well that covers the ‘familiarity backfire’ effect, but what about the ‘worldview backfire’ effect? Wait… the what? Yep, we’re not done and dusted yet… let’s explore the worldview backfire effect.

When Your Worldview Backfires

Nobody likes being told they’re wrong. You’re not an idiot after all. Yet when you are told something that contradicts what you already know, it feels uncomfortable. How do you weigh up two contradictory ideas at the same time? Me no likie. There’s a psychological theory for what’s going at this moment. It has a name. Yes, it’s that old chestnut, ‘cognitive dissonance’.

To help get rid of the discomfort of cognitive dissonance, ‘confirmation bias’ can come into play. It’s a type of mental shortcut in human decision making where we have “the tendency to only accept facts that fit our existing beliefs”.5

The worldview backfire effect appears to take the confirmation bias one step further.  It’s said to happen when a correction of misinformation motivates you to not only accept facts that fit your existing beliefs but to defend your worldview because of the challenge to your belief systems.4 It’s like cognitively digging in your heels.

It’s what some parents did in response to corrections about misperceptions surrounding the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine in a 2014 study.6 After being shown corrective information, parents with the least favourable attitudes to vaccines actually reduced their intent to vaccinate.6

Two of the same authors, Nyhan and Reifler7, published a paper in 2015 about the flu vaccine. They found that respondents in their study who had the greatest concerns about flu vaccine side effects, significantly decreased their reported likelihood of getting a flu vaccine after receiving corrective information.7

Once again, this all sounds really bad especially if it’s your job to fact check misinformation. Shockingly bad. So much so, that when some of the initial backfire effect studies were published, the media and science bloggers took hold of the worldview backfire effect and ran with it.4 The problem was that they tended to overgeneralise the backfire effect observed in population subgroups and applied it to everyone and with all corrective information.4

But then an interesting thing happened… more research.

Correcting the Backfire Effect

After 5 experiments involving 10,100 people that tested 52 issues of potential backfire across a variety of topics, researchers Ethan Porter and Thomas Wood found little evidence of the backfire effect.8 They thought they had done something wrong and sheepishly presented their results to Nyhan and Reifler, the researchers who were instrumental in discovering the backfire effect.9,10

Instead of cognitively digging their heels in, Nyhan and Reifler wanted to learn more and joined Porter and Thomas in running another experiment.10, 11 They failed to find any backfire effect.10,11

The authors of a recent literature review on the backfire effect4 state that “fact checkers can rest assured that it is extremely unlikely that, at the broader group level, their fact-checks will lead to increased belief in the misinformation. Meta-analyses have clearly shown that corrections are generally effective and backfire effects are not the norm”.4 They also go on to say: “Regarding the familiarity backfire effect, avoiding the repetition of the original misconception within the correction appears to be unnecessary and could even hinder corrective efforts.”4

Phew! Another big sigh of relief. That said, the authors of the literature review4 do recommend:

  • clearly and saliently pairing any misinformation with corrections4
  • that you avoid any unnecessary repetition of misinformation4
  • including both the misinformation and the correction in a headline, not misinformation alone.4

Huzzah for truth I say. But what is ‘truth’? I think I’ve found my next rabbit hole.

References

  1. Trevors, G., Muis, K.R., Pekrun, R. Sinatra, G.M., & Winne, P.H. (2016). Identity and Epistemic Emotions During Knowledge Revision: A Potential Account for the Backfire Effect. Discourse Processes, 53(5), 339-370. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/0163853X.2015.1136507
  2. Skurnik, I., Yoon, C., & Schwarz, N. (2007). Education about flu can reduce intentions to get a vaccination. Unpublished manuscript.
  3. Schwarz, N., Sanna,L.J., Skurnik, I., & Yoon, C. (2007). Metacognitive Experiences and the Intricacies of Setting People Straight: Implications for Debiasing and Public Information Campaigns. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 39, 127-161. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0065-2601(06)39003-X
  4. Swire-Thompson, B., DeGutis, J. & Lazer, D. (2020). Searching for the Backfire Effect: Measurement and Design Considerations. Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, 9(3), 286-299. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jarmac.2020.06.006
  5. Milne, V., Caulfield, T., & Tepper, J. (2017, August 31). Seven Ways to Talk to Anti-Vaxxers (That Might Actually Change Their Minds). Healthy Debate. https://healthydebate.ca/2017/08/topic/vaccine-safety-hesitancy
  6. Nyhan, B., Jason, R., Sean, R.,& Gary, F. (2014). Effective messages in vaccine promotion: a randomized trial. Pediatrics, 133(4), 835-842. http://dx.doi.org/10.1542/peds.2013-2365
  7. Nyhan, B., & Reifler, J. (2015). Does correcting myths about the flu vaccine work? An experimental evaluation of the effects of corrective information. Vaccine, 33, 459–464. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.vaccine.2014.11.017
  8. Wood, T., & Porter, E. (2019). The elusive backfire effect: Mass attitudes’ steadfast factual adherence. Political Behavior, 41, 135–163. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11109-018-9443-y
  9. Nurse, M. (2019, June 29). The Winding Story of the Backfire Effect. Communication science – ABN 72342834614. https://www.communicationscience.org.au/2019/06/29/the-story-of-the-backfire-effect/
  10. Gladstone, B. (Podcast Host). (2017, July 21). Walking Back the Backfire Effect. On the Media. https://www.wnycstudios.org/podcasts/otm/segments/walking-back-backfire-effect
  11. Nyhan, B., Porter, E., Reifler, J., & Wood, T. J. (2019). Taking fact-checks literally but not seriously? The effects of journalistic fact-checking on factual beliefs and candidate favorability. Political Behavior, 1–22. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11109-019-09528-x