The Backfire Effect

From 2005 to 2015 there was a 93 percent increase (from 8,330 in 2005 to 16,062 in 2015) in the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students in higher education award courses compared with 47 percent growth for all domestic students.

For most people this is an encouraging fact, however, for some people, this reaffirms their belief that Closing the Gap is a failure. How???...........The Backfire effect. The Backfire effect was named by Nhyan & Reifler (2010) and it refers to the bias that when people are presented with evidence against their beliefs, people maintain and strengthen their belief.

Nyhan & Reifler (2010) conducted four experiments in which subjects read mock newspaper articles containing a statement from a political figure that reinforces a widespread misperception. Participants were randomly assigned to read articles that either included or did not include corrective information immediately after a false or misleading statement. They were then asked to answer a series of factual and opinion questions.

In each of the four experiments, ideological subgroups failed to update their beliefs when presented with corrective information that runs counter to their predispositions. In several cases, it was found that corrections strengthened misperceptions among the most strongly committed subjects.

Lodge and Taber (2000), and Redlawsk (2002) interpret the backfire effects as a possible result of the process by which people counterargue preference incongruent information and bolster their pre-existing views. If people counterargue unwelcome information vigorously enough, they may end up with “more attitudinally congruent information in mind than before the debate” (Lodge and Taber 2000), which in turn leads them to report opinions that are more extreme than they otherwise would have had.

So basically, when presented with information that goes against our beliefs, we argue as to why our beliefs are true and construct a narrative to rationalise away the information. This can result in further reinforced and strengthened beliefs. This kind of bias, however, is found to be rare and most of us are able to change our beliefs in the face of overwhelming factual information. 

Ditto & Lopez (1992) stated, preference inconsistent information is likely to be subjected to greater scepticism than preference consistent information, but individuals who are “confronted with information of sufficient quantity or clarity… should eventually acquiesce to a preference-inconsistent conclusion.” The effectiveness of corrective information is therefore likely to vary depending on the extent to which the individual has been exposed to similar messages elsewhere. For instance, as a certain belief becomes widely viewed as discredited among the public and the press, individuals who might be ideologically sympathetic to that belief.

Ditto & Lopez (1992) conclusion was further supported in a recent study by Wood & Porter (2017). Wood & Porter (2017) conducted five experiments, enrolling more than 10,100 subjects and tested 52 issues of potential backfire. Across all experiments, no corrections capable of triggering backfire were found, despite testing precisely the kinds of polarized issues where backfire should be expected. Evidence of factual backfire is far more tenuous than prior research suggests. By and large, citizens heed factual information, even when such information challenges their ideological commitments.


Ditto, Peter H. and David F. Lopez (1992). “Motivated Skepticism: Use of Differential Decision Criteria for Preferred and Nonpreferred Conclusions.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 63(4): 568-584

Lodge, Milton, and Charles S. Taber (2000). “Three Steps Toward a Theory of Motivated Political Reasoning.” In Arthur Lupia, Mathew D. McCubbins, and Samuel L. Popkin, eds., Elements of Reason: Understanding and Expanding the Limits of Political Rationality. London: Cambridge University Press.

Nyhan, B. & Reifler, J. Polit Behav (2010) 32: 303.

Redlawsk, David (2002). “Hot Cognition or Cool Consideration? Testing the Effects of Motivated Reasoning on Political Decision Making.” Journal of Politics 64(4):1021-1044

Wood, Thomas and Porter, Ethan, The Elusive Backfire Effect: Mass Attitudes' Steadfast Factual Adherence (December 31, 2017). Forthcoming, Political Behavior. Available at SSRN: or