Beware: debunking research myths can backfire on you

Watch out, warns Christian Bokhove – challenging misconceptions about research could blow up in your face by reinforcing the very views you’re trying to correct
19th July 2019, 12:03am
How Debunking Research Can Backfire
Christian Bokhove

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Beware: debunking research myths can backfire on you

https://www.tes.com/magazine/archived/beware-debunking-research-myths-can-backfire-you

I don't always find it easy deciding whether to correct misconceptions about research that I hear in person or see on social media. One of the reasons for this is a phenomenon called "the backfire effect".

The backfire effect was originally proposed by Nyhan and Reifler in 2010, based on their research among conservatives. Other studies then confirmed the hypothesis. The idea is that, in the face of contradictory evidence, established beliefs do not change but actually get stronger.

This could potentially be very frustrating for those who are attempting to debunk myths. After all, if it's true, it would make most refutations useless.

In The Debunking Handbook, Cook and Lewandowsky (2011) describe several forms of backfire.

One is "familiarity backfire". In a study by Skurnik and colleagues (2005), participants were shown a flyer that debunked common myths about flu vaccines. Older and younger adult participants were then asked to separate the myths from the facts in a test, either 30 minutes later or three days later. The researchers also added variation in the number of times a statement was presented - either one or three times.

The more often older adults were told that a claim was false, the more likely they were to remember it incorrectly after a three-day delay. This did not hold for true claims.

Older adults also remembered incorrectly after 30 minutes if the claim was only presented once. In contrast, younger adults' memories benefited from repeated warnings after both 30 minutes and three days.

Another phenomenon described in The Debunking Handbook is "overkill backfire". A common assumption is that more counterarguments lead to better debunking. But the opposite can sometimes be true (less is more, as more arguments might reinforce the initial misconception).

A third type of backfire effect occurs with topics that tie in with people's world views or cultural identity. For people who are strongly fixed in their views, being confronted with counterarguments can cause those views to be strengthened (through confirmation bias).

Two strategies, however, might counter "backfire". First, debunking efforts should be directed towards the undecided majority rather than the unmovable minority. Second, messages can be presented in ways that reduce psychological resistance. According to The Debunking Handbook, this can be done through so-called self-affirmation: asking people to write a few sentences about a time when they felt good about acting on a value. People then become more receptive to messages that threaten their world view. Another approach would be to frame the information in a less threatening way.

It also helps to provide alternative explanations. To paraphrase the handbook: when you debunk a myth, you create a gap in the person's mind. That gap needs to be filled with something - for example, an explanation about why the myth is wrong. A fruitful avenue might be to expose the rhetorical techniques used to misinform.

So there are several things you can do to counter the backfire effect.

Of course, it could also be that seeing backfire in others is a symptom of your own backfire. Wood and Porter recently released a paper showing that the effect itself might actually be a bit "elusive", arguing that: "By and large, citizens heed factual information, even when such information challenges their ideological commitments."

Or to quote Alexios Mantzarlis, interviewed on the BBC Trending podcast in 2018, when he was director of the International Fact-Checking Network: "We are fact-resistant, but not fact-immune."

The thing I take away from this is that, in a world with more and more misinformation, we have a big challenge on our hands. But it's not a hopeless challenge. We read, we inform, we evaluate. We might not always get it right, but it is my firm belief that study does make us "the wiser". You might even want to check the references of this column …

Dr Christian Bokhove is a lecturer in maths education at the University of Southampton and a specialist in research methodologies

This article originally appeared in the 19 July 2019 issue under the headline "Debunking can backfire on you"

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