An open and shut case: how the backfire effect closes minds

When evidence contradicts our deeply-held beliefs, we tend not to change our viewpoint but to become more entrenched

It’s interesting how open minded people are to the opinions of others. News programs regularly present debates that end with people coming around to opposing perspectives or at least agreeing to respectfully disagree.

Of course, I’m only kidding.

In fact, we see conservative news programs where hosts shout down guests with opposing views. We see liberal audiences disrupting and walking out of auditoriums where more right-wing views are presented. We see online arguments that go on ad nauseam, with each side getting more and more entrenched, even as legitimate counter arguments are presented.

What’s happening in these cases is the backfire effect. When evidence is presented that contradicts a deeply-held belief, we don’t change our viewpoint. On the contrary, we tend to become more entrenched and oppositional.

The key to dealing with any challenge is to increase our awareness, understand what’s happening and make a mindful response.

There may have been a time when embracing certain beliefs was a matter of life and death. This could explain our tendency to entrench ourselves in our points of view. Rituals for preparing food, for example, prevented people from being poisoned. There was much that we didn’t understand and the rules established by communities kept members safe in their environment.

These structures have their limits and there must be room for evolution. The more homogeneous an organization remains, the more likely it is to fail. This was illustrated in European royal families of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Genetically, they developed serious issues. And politically, they became unable to rule. They fell out of touch with their populations, resulting in loss of power and influence, dissolution of empires and even revolution.

Today, as world travel and communication become easier, societies grow more heterogeneous. So we are increasingly confronted with dissenting views.

Psychological research is shedding light on how we respond to cognitive dissonance, which happens when what we see or hear contradicts what we believe to be true. In essence, we can fight or we can try to understand the other world views.

Stephen Covey, the author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, tells us to “Seek first to understand, and then to be understood.” This doesn’t mean that we embrace the views of the other and forget our own. What normally happens when we follow this principle, however, is that when others feel listened to, they in turn become more open to our perspectives.

From here, we can understand and embrace what’s good in both points of view, and even celebrate diversity. Covey refers to this as creating synergy. By sharing and brainstorming, we come up with the best possible solutions, where everyone feels respected and everyone wins.

The most effective institutions embrace diversity. As a teacher, for example, I know how important it is to listen to my students and to use their input in creating and maintaining a positive and respectful environment in the classroom. In order to do so, however, I need to be confident in my own leadership and effectively communicate my goals and my vision.

The ideal is to create a learning environment where students are respectful in challenging other points of view and comfortable in having their opinions questioned.

If we’re aware of our tendency to react negatively when others express differing viewpoints and know that this is indeed the backfire effect, we can consciously move beyond it with an open mind.

The result will be a better way, one that embraces and celebrates our differences. More effort is required but it’s worth it. As American civil rights activist Maya Angelou says, “In diversity there is beauty and there is strength.”

Gerry Chidiac is a champion for social enlightenment, inspiring others to find their personal greatness in making the world a better place.


The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.

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