Bias number 13 is known as the backfire effect. This is a cognitive bias that affects the core belief systems of people.
In short, the backfire effect operates when a person strengthens his or her beliefs in spite of facts that present an opposing reality. The name comes from the fact that showing evidence that proves people wrong can have the undesired and opposite effect, namely that the person adheres more firmly to the original belief rather than being swayed to adopt a new belief.
How does this work? Let’s say you have developed what you believe to be a close relationship with a colleague at work. You then discover that the colleague has been skimming money off the top of the accounts for years. Despite the colleague’s lack of candour and integrity, you defend her unreservedly, refusing to believe she was capable of such actions, all in the face of clear evidence presented to you.
What do you notice as you consider the situation? Perhaps you’ve been in a similar situation yourself. How did you handle it? What caused you to dig your heels in despite the evidence?
Perhaps you emotionally benefitted from the relationship. Perhaps the two of you had fun together and you enjoyed each other’s company. Maybe the thought of having enjoyed nights out with this person under false pretence (and with stolen money) creates a discomfort that is too much to handle. And, it’s possible that you’re shocked that you didn’t see it coming and you feel embarrassed by your naivety or angry that you were duped by a person you trusted.
There are all sorts of reasons why you might feel the way you do in a situation like this. But ask yourself, “What has any of this got to do with the facts?”
Human beings believe themselves to be rational, logical creatures, except when it comes to situations in which emotions are involved. Emotions provide the artistic palette with which we experience life. Sometimes they create life as vibrant and colourful. Sometimes they create life as drab and dull. Sometimes they create life as downright dark.
And we, as human beings, get attached to feeling a certain way about things. As a result, we find it hard to let go of our current point of view, especially when our point of view serves a purpose, in this case feeling good about a person.
Cognitive dissonance results when we are presented with facts that contradict our beliefs, ideas and values, causing mental stress which in turn leads to the experience of uncomfortable emotions like anxiety, anger and fear. As creatures of comfort, most of us seek pleasure and avoid pain where possible, despite reality.
Here's where it gets complicated. Sometimes the backfire effect is purposefully used to create strong, defensive emotions in people to perpetuate something that, while providing benefit, also creates detrimental effects in certain circumstances.
Industries such as the pharmaceutical industry often push through treatments that have known severe adverse side effects, while promoting denialism and dismissing the validity of treatments that are either less financially profitable or seen as alternative.
How? Allow me to share a personal experience with you.
When my son was small, he developed asthma about three weeks after receiving his MMR booster vaccination. After a worrying trip to A&E and regular asthma attacks despite the use of his inhaler, he was not showing signs of improvement. I thought to myself, “There’s got to be another way.”
Being open to complementary therapies, I found a homeopath who not only resolved his asthma but corrected the botch job the ENT consultant had made during a grommet operation to remedy his glue ear.
Now, I understand the argument about the placebo effect, and I know that many people are dismissive of alternative medicine like homeopathy. And yet, I witnessed with my own eyes the end of his asthma attacks and the start of his ability to hear properly. In fact, two days after taking the remedy for glue ear, he said, “Mummy, I felt a pain in my ear and heard a pop sound and now everything is louder.” He was four years old.
You can present me with all the studies in the world that show how steroid inhalers treat asthma, and I can show you the living proof of a teenager who, after a few rounds of the little white pills coated in mysterious liquid, has never had another asthma attack and hears perfectly - when he wants to, that is.
So what do you believe — your eyes or the facts and figures presented by experts? Do you trust what someone says over what someone does? Do you stick to your guns despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary? Do you base your decisions on feeling over fact?
At the source of every bias is fear. Whether it’s the fear of standing alone as in the case of the availability heuristic or the fear of being wrong and losing face as is the case with the backfire effect, it is plain old fear that keeps each one of us stubbornly stuck with beliefs that fly against the face of truth.
Isn’t it interesting how willing we are to stand in deceit to avoid admitting we might have got something wrong. Isn’t it interesting to note how strong a grip fear has on our thoughts and beliefs. And isn’t it interesting to discover just how vulnerable we are as a species to irrational thought.
Ask yourself how a world without fear might look. Examine a situation in which you held onto your beliefs despite contradictory evidence. Challenge your own belief systems. Recognise that belief and truth are two very different things. Take a trip to the wild side. Open your eyes to a new world of discovery.
You might just find the brilliance you’ve been seeking.
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