Backfire Effect: Why Good Evidence And Sound Logic Doesn`t Matter

Blog Title, Backfire Effect Bias
When arguments backfire!

John worked so hard to convince that “crazy” uncle of his that he is right and his uncle wrong. He debated the subject with others. Sharpened his debate skills. He could slice each opposing argument like a knife through hot butter.

He collected mountains of evidence. Each from the most reputable journals. There is no way any sane individual could disbelieve John`s argument.

No matter what John did, the crazy uncle still clung to his belief that he is right and John was wrong. The crazy uncle runs a small and profitable business. He seems like a functional human being in most cases. Except for this. Why can`t John win?

Have you ever had something like this happen to you?

Maybe so.

How about the opposite. You just stated the facts. The other side took the new information calmly and changed their mind.

Mostly like it was not that often. If ever.

This is because humans are not logical. This was pointed in “Predictably Irrational” and by Dr. McCoy from countless episodes of Star Trek.

Surprised? Probably Not. But, It still can be frustrating.

What is the Backfire Effect?

So what is going on? What is going on is the backfire effect. The backfire effect is:

When some aspect of your core beliefs is challenged, it can cause you to believe it even more strongly.


A basic example is politics. The author of a study in the “Journal of Politics” says “Motivated reasoners may actually increase their support of a positively evaluated candidate upon learning new negatively evaluated information.”

For example, a Democrat said something damning about the Republican president. Some supporters would believe in the president all that much stronger.

The same goes in the opposite direction. For example, a Republican brought up evidence that could hurt the Democratic nominee. Some Democrats would dismiss it and support the candidate even more.

Another case outside of politics has been the anti-vaccine crowd. That`s the group that fears that their kids will get autism if you give them a vaccine. There has been some controversy. Some people make it a matter of personal freedom vs public health.

But, whatever the situation is showing credible scientific evidence doesn`t always matter. If you give detailed data that vaccines are good, most people will not change their minds and thank you for it.

It`s not a question of facts. So, what is it a question of?

Evidence and data is usually not enough to convince the other side.

The Brain Does Mind The Gap

As stated in the Media Asia article, “People build models of the world and they want them to be complete.” This means that even if the information is incomplete, people will cling onto a false idea. You need to provide an alternate plausible solution.

For example, in the case of the anti-vaccine crowd, it doesn`t matter that you prove that they are wrong. You still didn`t address the problem. If vaccines do not cause autism then what does?

Unfortunately, according to there is “no one cause of autism.” So, you don`t have a simple plausible reason to offer. That can really hurt your cause.

The problem here is that most people want a have a simple answer. Anything like “It`s a combination of genetic and non-genetic factors,” is not persuasive. No one can even imagine what that is like.

Pictures Are Better Than Words

But, when Trump mentions a horse-sized needle to be poked into a screaming kid. You can picture that. You can also picture autistic people. We have also seen the pictures. The whole scenario is very easy to visualize. That makes it seem real and thus, more likely. And that is the problem.

People can have a clear mental picture of the story vaccine = autistic kids. Fortunately, we have been doing vaccines for a very long time. There is a whole history of how vaccines ended polio, smallpox, and other horrible diseases.

The downside is that story is very abstract and happened a long time ago. For a very small minority that lacks reality and plausibility.

My real concern here is that our education system is good at teaching us what to no think, but they do a poor job of teaching us to how to think. That is something that we have to learn on our own. There is no “School of Thought.” So, people who are not used to thinking, do not do it well. I feel we need to put more focus on thinking than on remembering “facts.” You can just search for those.

Putting that aside, creating a good plausible solution is sometimes not enough. Even if you were imaginative to come with a good plausible story, there still is one more obstacle. What would that be?

In addition to solid data you need a good plausible story. No story, no sale.

The “I” In I Believe

Photo by Andre Mouton 

Especially in politics, people identify with the sets of ideas and groups. Anything that fits within the world of those ideas is accepted. Anything that doesn’t fit is rejected. This goes for anyone. You. Me. Any living person with a brain.

For example, someone says that the government could keep creating deficits. This could be ok because the Modern Money Theory says so. However, a key person who strongly supports it is on the other political side if you.

Further, both in your personal life and in your business you know you have to pay back your debts. Since you were young you were taught that paying back your debts is a moral obligation.

It is hard to beat supporting your team and doing your moral duty of paying all your debts. Being part of a team is part of anyone`s identity. People want to belong to some kind of group. Also, being moral is also a part of one`s self-image. Anything that threatens that is very hard to change.

So, you could have all the facts and logic on your side. But, you are going to need weapons-grade persuasion to get people to budge.

Be careful of the other person`s self-image. Aggressively attacking that will get you nowhere.

Even Doctors Didn’t Wash Their Hands

Image by Manuel Darío Fuentes Hernández 

You could suppose that people who cling to one political party are not that smart. But, what about doctors? Doctors are considered to be well-grounded in science. They studied it in school. But doctors are human too. They also fall to the whole backfire effect and sometimes even worse than that.

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How can a presentation be informative and entertaining?
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In 1846, Ignaz Semmelweis, a Hungarian doctor discovered that handwashing was very important. In those days, doctors worked on both births and dead bodies. They didn`t wash their hands at all.

They also did not take Semmelweis discovery very well either. Most of the doctor`s rejected him and his ideas. Semmelweis lost his job. He traveled around Europe, but no one listened to him. Eventually, he ended up in a mental institution and died at the age of 47.

If you look at NPR`s or any other article about Semmelweis, you see a sad and pointless tragedy. But, I would say that 99.99% of the time, it was Semmelweis`s fault. He handled the whole thing badly. In fact, he was doomed to fail. There were three problems.

The problem where:

  • he had no clear model of why handwashing was effective
  • his discovery severely hurt the doctor`s identity of saving lives
  • he was young and attacked all critics

Righteous Reactions Don`t Work

First of all, you are not going to convince anyone if you attack and berate them. He did that not only to their faces, but he did it in public. That was a guaranteed way of creating enemies. Strike One.

Next, Doctors are sworn to “Do No Harm.” It is something that most very firmly believe in. Semmelweis`s blunt approach attacked at their very identity that they were doing the right thing. You can`t expect people to quickly admit that due to their own negligence that they were killing lots of women. It would be hard for a normal person to admit that kind of mistake. It would especially be hard if the person was a doctor. Strike Two.

Finally, as I mentioned earlier. We hate vacuums and will cling to false alternatives even if we know they are wrong. Semmelweis only had data. He didn`t have a good theory. The germ theory of disease would be formalized only after his death. It would be generally only after the proponents of the old way of thinking died and younger doctors took up the new germ theory. Strike Three. You’re out.

Semmelweis would have been more effective if he gently brought people around instead of badgering them. Ask questions. Avoid righteous condemnation.


This all goes to show that having all the right data doesn`t always matter. Having the right logic can help. But, even that can fail. It is more important that you know that the Backfire exists. You need to plan and manage for it.

If you need more help presenting a new idea in business presentations please, let me know. I can help you avoid the backfire effect. I help people effectively use logic, psychology, and rhetoric to build powerful presentations. A good presentation can make or break a business. Just contact me on Twitter, Facebook, or the contact form here if you need help.

Matthew Ownby

Previously worked at NASA, Cisco Japan, and other large IT Corporation. Spent more than 15 years training businessmen and women to be better presenters. Good enough at Japanese help native Japanese speakers win speaking contests. Was fortunate enough to give a TEDx Talk in Kyoto also in Japanese ;). Also aims to build the toughest communication contest ever. That will not only include being good at business presentation skills, but debate, meeting facilitation, negotiation, coaching, and more. Also runs an online communication dojo where the focus is on practical skill application not listening to a sage on a stage.

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