03 August 2010

The Backfire Bias

The Thinker | Jeffrey Ellis | Just The Facts, Ma’am: The Backfire Bias

According to the research described in this Boston Globe article,
Facts don’t necessarily have the power to change our minds. In fact, quite the opposite. In a series of studies in 2005 and 2006, researchers at the University of Michigan found that when misinformed people, particularly political partisans, were exposed to corrected facts in news stories, they rarely changed their minds. In fact, they often became even more strongly set in their beliefs. Facts, they found, were not curing misinformation. Like an underpowered antibiotic, facts could actually make misinformation even stronger.

This bodes ill for a democracy, because most voters — the people making decisions about how the country runs — aren’t blank slates. They already have beliefs, and a set of facts lodged in their minds. The problem is that sometimes the things they think they know are objectively, provably false. [...]
I’ve been aware of this phenomenon for a while now, but have not found an existing label or definition. So, prompted by this article, I shall henceforth refer to this as the backfire bias: the tendency to entrench our opinions even deeper when confronted with countering evidence and arguments, rather than admit we are wrong. [...]

And it is related to what I’ve informally thought of as the “I just know” bias: the tendency of people to cling to opinions without any evidence- or logic-based justification, because they “just know” that they are right.
Amen.  Like Swift said, "It is useless to attempt to reason a man out of a thing he was never reasoned into."

This is actually one of things I like (on average) about most libertarians. I feel like more of us were argued into our positions. There are always a horde of libertarians who were seduced by Atlas Shrugged, and a bunch who just like to feel superior to the Red Team v. Blue Team partisan bickering, but I still feel a higher percentage of us have come to our position as a result of reasoning, rather than because we're aping our parents' views. Or just as mindlessly, swinging to the opposite pole of our parents.

I'm being a little self-congratulatory of my tribe, so let me offer a less partisan observation. I can't take seriously people who haven't changed their mind on at least one issue in their adult life. There's just no way that you had all relevant evidence about every issue when you graduated high school. The chances of maintaing the same conclusion despite the addition of new data — new to you as well as new to the world as a whole — is vanishingly small. It tells me you probably aren't thinking.

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