The Backfire Effect

It’s been a while since I’ve read The Oatmeal and I’m glad to have become reacquainted. This is a great web comic with many relevant topics. Recently I saw something from The Oatmeal shared on Twitter and it seems very relevant to education, in general, but particularly when it comes to equity training and learning about our own implicit biases.

Here is the post: The Backfire Effect. The gist is that when we are confronted with information that challenges our core beliefs, our brain has a similar response to when we are physically threatened. In other words, people have a naturally heightened fear response when their knowledge or intellect is challenged. I don’t have much to add to that right now, but I thought this was very interesting and connected to education and equity work in a lot of ways.


And nowhere is this more evident than trying to convince someone who believes otherwise that one space after a period is correct, and that two spaces after a period is incorrect. :slight_smile:

That was a cool piece in The Oatmeal. Thank you for sharing it.

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Ok, that was educational and helpful. …BUT I wish there had been more challenging statements to liberal core beliefs. I don’t think I could get somebody in a conservative amygdala fort to see anything in that but an attack on conservatism. (And obviously liberals have amygdala forts as well; I’d like to get more insight into those.)

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My sister-in-law and I have been “estranged” since a conversation in August 2016 after which she claimed I attacked her. It’s now occurred to me that her perception of the conversation could have been the same as if I was raising a fist to her. Yikes.


That’s a good point. There are plenty of myths that can be busted on the progressive side as well.

Googling “backfire effect liberals” I found (in addition to some notions that it may be stronger in conservatives {anyone read The Righteous Mind?]) this article from 2011:

Among the many biases and delusions in between you and your microprocessor-rich, skinny-jeaned Arcadia is a great big psychological beast called the backfire effect. It’s always been there, meddling with the way you and your ancestors understood the world, but the Internet unchained its potential, elevated its expression, and you’ve been none the wiser for years.

As social media and advertising progresses, confirmation bias and the backfire effect will become more and more difficult to overcome. You will have more opportunities to pick and choose the kind of information which gets into your head along with the kinds of outlets you trust to give you that information. In addition, advertisers will continue to adapt, not only generating ads based on what they know about you, but creating advertising strategies on the fly based on what has and has not worked on you so far. The media of the future may be delivered based not only on your preferences, but on how you vote, where you grew up, your mood, the time of day or year – every element of you which can be quantified. In a world where everything comes to you on demand, your beliefs may never be challenged.

You are not so smart link

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I integrated this comic into a lesson and paired it with learning about Confirmation Bias to help students think about how their beliefs when approaching a topic affect how they process the information they receive. It’s a great resource for helping students learn metacognitive skills. I’ll be returning to that lesson tomorrow.

The comic has its regular version as well as a school-friendly version (with no swearing).

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