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Post No.: 0127backfire


Fluffystealthkitten says:


As you probably know very well from personal experience – trying to debunk another person’s deeply-held beliefs is often fraught with dangers. It can sometimes backfire, and backfire spectacularly. It’s like trying to get them to convert or denounce their religion or change which sports team or country they support.


There can be a ‘backfire effect’, where merely talking about a myth can actually reinforce it (it’ll at the very least give the myth some free air time or public relations – some will argue that even bad PR is ultimately good PR). There can be an ‘overkill backfire effect’, where overwhelming someone with arguments against their beliefs can make them shut off from those arguments altogether (and make them want to go back to their own echo chambers even more, where they feel safer, less threatened and therefore happier). And there can be a ‘worldview backfire effect’, where if the myth is fundamental to their worldview then there’ll be a mighty resistance to accept the evidence and they’ll hold onto their existing beliefs even more strongly (the attacks on their beliefs will feel like an attack on their very character, person and integrity, so much that they’ll behave incredibly defensively in order to preserve their own credibility and reputation, especially if their existing beliefs have been made public and shared with others – they may have even converted others to believe what they believe and so may feel accountable to them).


It’s like when first impressions can be hard to shift. First impressions can take a lot of effort to shift because of this difficulty in changing views once a particular view has been set and invested in, even though a first impression may be completely wrong or misrepresentative. Confirmation bias will lead a person to overly-seek and overly-weight evidence that confirms their first or current impressions, and under-seek and under-weight evidence that counters their first or current impressions. One’s mental inertia is very difficult to overcome – people generally cannot change their worldviews very easily, especially if they’ve invested so much time and effort into supporting it. To change one’s views would be in effect saying that all that time and effort (i.e. sunk costs) has been a waste, and no one wants to think that they’ve wasted their life on something that was wrong.


It’s therefore easiest to persuade those who aren’t already fixed in their views, such as the undecided or young children (for better if they’re educated well e.g. with critical thinking skills and a thirst for empirical evidence to support claims, or for worse if their fresh, unadulterated and absorbent minds are fed with complete ****. Ahem).


To be an effective debunker – you must concentrate on the core facts rather than on countering the myth (talking about the myth all the time can reinforce the familiarity of that myth), give explicit warning before mentioning any myth (i.e. warn that the following information is false if it’s false, because trying to change a lie to a truth or a truth to a lie retroactively is tougher than consistently keeping something as a truth or lie), always give an alternative explanation to fill any and all gaps left by the debunking of the old myth (people want complete and coherently unified pictures of the world. You could also explain why those who intentionally or unintentionally promoted the myth did so in the first place e.g. they stood to selfishly profit greatly from perpetuating the myth), and use visual imagery or graphics to display the core facts as these tend to be cognitively easier to read, clearer, more concise and easier to understand, more emotionally affective, easier to remember, and therefore more persuasive (whether written or graphical, information that’s well organised, well presented and easy to process is more likely to be accepted as true (again for better if that information is ultimately true and well supported by facts, or for worse if it’s bull**** plastered on the side of a building or vehicle, for instance!))


Presenting only a handful of your strongest arguments makes your case easier to process than an over-complicated dossier of evidence (even if all of it is true), and makes your case more credible than having to make corrections or retractions of previous claims because one used weak arguments that subsequently turned out to be too weak and got defeated. Opponents picking on your weakest arguments to ‘cast doubt’ on your entire case is a major backfire outcome, even though this logic of theirs is fallacious because they haven’t defeated your strongest arguments. You might also want to use different tiers of technical detail to appeal to different people (e.g. a short summary without jargon for non-technical people and a longer and more detailed explanation for technical people). Then end on a strong and simple message that people will remember.


Different people care differently about their own immediate interests versus long-term interests. Different groups of people are also better convinced by using different ratios between logic, evidence and statistics versus emotions and appeals to desires and faith. Most people are at least somewhat influenced by emotional appeals such as inflated hopes or fears though, and even by how much they like the speaker. This is because humans aren’t wholly rational creatures who will only (or even primarily) be swayed by pure reason. Arguing on the assumption that people are purely rational is where most people fail to achieve results (although many people don’t argue with pure reason even when they think they are anyway!) Try not to patronise, be aggressively defensive yourself or rude though – social intelligence is more important than intellectual intelligence here. Ideally, you want people to come to their own conclusions because people will own them more. Still, even all the above might not be adequate for some people because your time with them cannot match the time they spend within their own echo chambers.


For yourself – although it’s against one’s automatic instincts, try not to judge on first impressions, wait until all sides have had a fair chance to present and prove their side of the argument before taking any stance, and always periodically question your own beliefs, seek out further evidence from all sources and sides and be open to changing your views if the weight of evidence swings another way. After all, one of the biggest biases is thinking that human psychological patterns of irrationality only apply to those people one disagrees with but not oneself as a human too(!) If you think they’re being stubborn, they’ll think you’re being stubborn too, because it takes two to form an impasse.


Meow. Biases apparently apply to magic, part-time shape-shifting frisky furmiliars too, although no scientific experiments have ever been conducted on us to confirm it! Anyway, it’s wise to be a little bit humble whatever creatures we are so I’ll try to be too. And sometimes we have to ask whether it’s more important to get along than be (more probabilistically) right? And like that question, there are sometimes no right or wrong views.


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