It’s Tuesday and I’m hanging out with a close friend. She’s going on about her boyfriend, who’s acting like such a Gemini. I roll my eyes. She tells me she wishes she were dating a Scorpio, because they would be much more compatible. After a few minutes, I snap.
“Horoscopes aren’t real!” I yell.
She stops talking and looks at me. Her eyes soften as if she understood what I meant. Could this really be? Had I really gotten through to her?
The short answer is no, absolutely not.
“That’s exactly what a Capricorn would say,” she said, seemingly amused. Discouraged, I place my head on the desk.
Alright, let’s unpack this scenario.
You might think that I’m right and that the idea of horoscopes are “hippy-dippy” or fake. On the other hand, you might be frustrated, and think that my friend is the correct one – I truly am a textbook Capricorn.
Whether it’s a debate about horoscopes, a television series, or a political opinion, these types of discussions happen daily.
We are constantly facing different points of view, yet our own opinions often don’t change. One of the reasons for this could be explained by the concept the backfire effect.
This term was coined by two researchers, Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler. Craig Silverman, a writer for Columbia Journalism Review explains that the backfire effect is when, “your deepest convictions are challenged by contradictory evidence, your beliefs get stronger.”
Essentially, debunking myths or trying to convey a message to someone with an opposing view can often cause the exact opposite response that you’d expect.
Nyhan and Reifler conducted an experiment where they wrote inaccurate news articles about political topics. Once a participant read the inaccurate article, they were immediately told to read the corrected version.
One of the fake news articles falsely stated that weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq. Even after they corrected it with a second article, people who supported the war sunk into their belief of the first article. People that were against the war easily believed that it wasn’t true.
It’s simple; humans don’t like being wrong. Typically, in a discussion, we are hesitant to lean in and listen to what the other person is saying.
In today’s political climate, there are certain discussions and arguments that dehumanize and disregard the human rights of the topic at hand. There are a lot of systematic and historical reasons for societal issues such as racism, xenophobia and sexism. It’s truly impossible for one single term, like the backfire effect, to define all the patterns in society.
That being said, it’s important to challenge our instincts. Often humans have too much pride to do this. To go back to my small example, if I were to listen to my friend when she talked about horoscopes, I would likely learn something interesting.
If, after one or two conversations, I wasn’t completely sold on the idea, it’s still useful to learn about this other perspective. Perhaps I would learn that horoscopes hold an important part in her life, help her understand her environment and very often reflect her reality.
Although it’s not always possible, there is a value in taking a break from being the hard-headed humans we have evolved to be. To fight against the backfire effect, we need to relinquish our defensive instincts, let our guard down and listen carefully to the evidence that’s being shared.
Photo: Brittany Clarke.