The Connection Between the Backfire Effect and Mental Illness?

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Most would assume that when people see evidence that contradicts or challenges their viewpoints, they would assess and evaluate and then adjust their viewpoints accordingly.  However, surprisingly, this is not always the case.  For example, let’s say that a person vehemently and staunchly believes that two plus two equals five.  Then, let’s say that this person encounters a second person who takes the opportunity to educate the first on the basic principles of math.  The second person is able to provide evidence that shows that two plus two in fact equals four.  However, despite this fact, the first person defiantly digs their feet in and continues to argue that the answer is actually five.  This hypothetical situation is an example of the Backfire Effect.

The Backfire Effect is a cognitive bias that describes the tendency for an individual to strengthen viewpoints, reinforce beliefs, and increase confidence in them when faced with evidence suggesting the contrary.  Instead of doubting, altering, and changing beliefs, a person will reject new evidence and return to their original position.  The Backfire Effect is important, as it sheds light on one’s ability to sway the opinions of others in addition to how we process information ourselves. 

The Backfire Effect portrays that providing people with evidence that they are incorrect is often ineffective and can “backfire.”  It backfires because it only causes people to increase confidence and support their original stance more strongly than they did previously.  The Backfire Effect is an example of a confirmation bias, which causes people to turn away information that does not align with their beliefs, or to interpret it in a way that can confirm their beliefs.

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When a person obtains information that contradicts preexisting notions, they tend to feel threatened, as the information suggests that their current beliefs are wrong.  This can trigger negative emotions, especially when notions are critical to their self-concept.  These negative emotions can impact their ability to take in the correct information, as they fail to process it correctly and try to find ways to discredit it.

Science has shown that people have a tendency to build new memories and connections in the brain that strengthen original convictions when faced with incompatible evidence that causes cognitive dissonance.  Corrections to mistaken viewpoints are thought to increase misperceptions because it elevates threat to one’s self-concept.     

It is important to note that the backfire effect may not impact people all of the time, as there are some individuals who do not fall prey to this thought process.  Increasing awareness of the backfire effect, changing the way that information is presented to others, and using explanations that are less complicated can help to combat this cognitive bias.  Being aware of the backfire effect can also help people to be more mindful of its influence when they come across information that is contradictory. 

With all this being said, are people who frequently experience the backfire effect more prone to mental illness?  The answer is no, as the backfire effect is a common cognitive bias that does not have anything to do with mental illness.  Rather, the backfire effect is more likely attributed to a human tendency of wanting to be right.  In our hypothetical example, the person who is so desperately trying to show how two plus two equals five is not mentally ill, but rather trying to preserve his own viewpoint.  He is merely attempting to resolve the cognitive dissonance and threat to his self-concept, which is no way indicative of a mental illness. 

Tracy is a Licensed Professional Counselor and is a clinical supervisor for the Community YMCA, Counseling & Social Services branch. Tracy has over 12 years of experience working in many settings including partial care hospitalization and intensive outpatient programs, community agencies, group practice, and school-based programs. Tracy works with clients of all ages, but especially enjoys working with the adolescents. Tracy  facilitates groups using art therapy, sand play and psychodrama.