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The Debunking Handbook Part 4: The Worldview Backfire Effect

Posted on 23 November 2011 by John Cook, Stephan Lewandowsky

Update Oct. 14, 2020:
The Debunking Handbook is now available in an extensively updated version written by Stephan Lewandowsky, John Cook, Ulrich Ecker and 19 co-authors. Read about this new edition in this blog post: The Debunking Handbook 2020: Downloads and Translations

Excerpt 3 from this new edition of The Debunking Handbook explains the latest research about The elusive backfire effects.

The Debunking Handbook is an upcoming a freely available guide to debunking myths, by John Cook and Stephan Lewandowsky. Although there is a great deal of psychological research on misinformation, unfortunately there is no summary of the literature that offers practical guidelines on the most effective ways of reducing the influence of misinformation. This Handbook boils down the research into a short, simple summary, intended as a guide for communicators in all areas (not just climate) who encounter misinformation. The Handbook will be available as a free, downloadable PDF at the end of this 6-part blog series.

This post has been cross-posted at Shaping Tomorrow's World

The third and arguably most potent backfire effect occurs with topics that tie in with people’s worldviews and sense of cultural identity.  Several cognitive processes can cause people to unconsciously process information in a biased way. For those who are strongly fixed in their views, being confronted with counter-arguments can cause their views to be strengthened.

One cognitive process that contributes to this effect is Confirmation Bias, where people selectively seek out information that bolsters their view. In one experiment, people were offered information on hot-button issues like gun control or affirmative action. Each parcel of information was labelled by its source, clearly indicating whether the information would be pro or con (e.g., the National Rifle Association vs. Citizens Against Handguns). Although instructed to be even-handed, people opted for sources that matched their pre-existing views. The study found that even when people are presented with a balanced set of facts, they reinforce their pre-existing views by gravitating towards information they already agree with. The polarisation was greatest among those with strongly held views.1

What happens when you remove that element of choice and present someone with arguments that run counter to their worldview? In this case, the cognitive process that comes to the fore is Disconfirmation Bias, the flipside of Confirmation Bias. This is where people spend significantly more time and thought actively arguing against opposing arguments.2

This was demonstrated when Republicans who believed Saddam Hussein was linked to the 9/11 terrorist attacks were provided with evidence that there was no link between the two, including a direct quote from President George Bush.3 Only 2% of participants changed their mind (although interestingly, 14% denied that they believed the link in the first place). The vast majority clung to the link between Iraq and 9/11, employing a range of arguments to brush aside the evidence. The most common response was attitude bolstering - bringing supporting facts to mind while ignoring any contrary facts. The process of bringing to the fore supporting facts resulted in strengthening people’s erroneous belief.

If facts cannot dissuade a person from their pre-existing beliefs - and can sometimes make things worse - how can we possibly reduce the effect of misinformation? There are two sources of hope. 

First, the Worldview Backfire Effect is strongest among those already fixed in their views. You therefore stand a greater chance of correcting misinformation among those not as firmly decided about hot-button issues. This suggests that outreaches should be directed towards the undecided majority rather than the unswayable minority.

Second, messages can be presented in ways that reduce the usual psychological resistance. For example, when worldview-threatening messages are coupled with so-called self-affirmation, people become more balanced in considering pro and con information.4,5

Self-affirmation can be achieved by asking people to write a few sentences about a time when they felt good about themselves because they acted on a value that was important to them. People then become more receptive to messages that otherwise might threaten their worldviews, compared to people who received no self-affirmation. Interestingly, the “self-affirmation effect” is strongest among those whose ideology was central to their sense of self-worth. 

Another way in which information can be made more acceptable is by “framing” it in a way that is less threatening to a person’s worldview. For example, Republicans are far more likely to accept an otherwise identical charge as a “carbon offset” than as a “tax”, whereas the wording has little effect on Democrats or Independents—because their values are not challenged by the word “tax”.6

Self-affirmation and framing aren’t about manipulating people. They give the facts a fighting chance.


  1. Taber, C. S., & Lodge, M. (2006). Motivated skepticism in the evaluation of political beliefs. American Journal of Political Science, 50, 755–69.
  2. Nyhan, B., & Reifler, J. (2010). When Corrections Fail: The Persistence of Political Misperceptions. Political Behavior, 32, 303-330.
  3. Prasad, M., Perrin, A. J., Bezila, K., Hoffman, S. G., Kindleberger, K., Manturuk, K., et al. (2009). “There Must Be a Reason’’: Osama, Saddam, and Inferred Justification. Sociological Inquiry, 79, 142-162.
  4. Cohen, G. L., Sherman, D. K., Bastardi, A., Hsu, L., & McGoey, M. (2007). Bridging the Partisan Divide: Self-Affirmation Reduces Ideological Closed-Mindedness and Inflexibility in Negotiation. Personality & Soc. Psych., 93, 415-430.
  5. Nyhan, B., & Reifler, J. (2011). Opening the Political Mind? The effects of self-affirmation and graphical information on factual misperceptions. In press.
  6. Hardisty, D. J., Johnson, E. J. & Weber, E. U. (1999). A Dirty Word or a Dirty World?: Attribute Framing, Political Affiliation, and Query Theory, Psychological Science, 21, 86-92

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Comments 1 to 22:

  1. Only 2% of participants changed their mind (although interestingly, 14% denied that they believed the link in the first place).
    Indeed; it was striking in the week after the BEST data came out to see the number of statements from people had suddenly never previously doubted that the world was warming, but merely doubted the cause.
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  2. It was even more striking (following on from Kevin C's comment) to see the number of those people who have subsequently reverted back to doubting any form of warming anyway, meaning that their denial about their previous views was also a denial ! (If you see what I mean...)
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  3. Following on from Kevin and JMurphy; To borrow a phrase from 1984, 'We have always been at war with Eastasia!'. Some people are quite capable of firmly believing things that their own memory should tell them are untrue. They will rewrite their own memories, facts, friendships, arguments/logic they supposedly find compelling, and nearly anything else in order to preserve the viability of 'sacred Truths' in their own minds. Generally, the only way you can get something past such a distortion filter is if you can figure out the underlying beliefs and then somehow get the facts to fit within that fictional framework. For example, here in the U.S. most people in rural areas are Republicans and thus 'know' that global warming is just an evil scheme by commie liberal elitist government types out to destroy the American way of life. However, wind power companies have managed to make headway in many of these areas by presenting themselves as ways to be self sufficient ('we don't need no elitist government bureaucrats sticking their noses in our business, we can generate our own power') and 'patriotic' ('this is American wind we are using... not commie terrorist oil') and never ever mentioning that they will reduce global warming.
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  4. @3. Well put. That's exactly what the literature suggests: Reframe the issue and go straight to the solution. Sadly, that doesn't always work; there is astroturfed opposition to renewables too, often conducted with the same emotional venom. Apparently windmills, too, can be communists.
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  5. Interesting examples! Confirmation bias has many causes and is difficult to "turn off," no less so for climate science than for other domains. There's a sort of opposite effect to the self-affirmation findings in the post. Specifically, showing your "credentials" on a topic can leave you free to express the opposite of what the credentials imply. For instance, proclaiming yourself to be non-racist first can make you more likely to display racism later, such as making a race-based hiring decision. This would seem to point in the opposite direction to the self-affirmation effects; I don't know if these two have ever been reconciled. (good ref is Monin, B. & Miller, D. T. (2001), Moral credentials and the expression of prejudice, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 81). And I'm not trying to be contentious, but it's important to note that a die-hard WUWT fan could read this post and think "Yes, confirmation bias is exactly why those SkS and Real Climate people believe what they do. If only they could open their eyes and drop their preconceptions." The processes that underlie, say, confirmation bias, or the illusion of truth effect, don't work one way for info that matches the real world and another way for info that's fantasy, they'll operate no matter what the actual veracity of the information.
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  6. 5, Ian, Excellent point, and something that always amuses me. Climate science "believers" are often accused of being in a religious faith (thus completely subtracting the word science from any meaningful sense in the debate). Yet this is exactly how deniers are viewed, as clinging to their position religiously, in spite of the evidence. And yet, now we must turn this back on ourselves, and ask if we aren't being religious in our secular appreciation of the science, by projecting this religious faith view of belief on the deniers who project it on us. Perhaps it is us who are so religiously wedded to science and facts that we can't see that we are unable to shed that burden and free ourselves from the need to believe in evidence and logic, or at least to realize that the evidence and logic, no matter how strong, are countered by the equally powerful forces of wishful thinking and common sense. [Okay, sorry, I just can't bring myself to even imply that full scale denial is anything but a bizarre, psychological impediment.]
    Man in Black: All right. Where is the poison? The battle of wits has begun. It ends when you decide and we both drink, and find out who is right... and who is dead. Vizzini: But it's so simple. All I have to do is divine from what I know of you: are you the sort of man who would put the poison into his own goblet or his enemy's? Now, a clever man would put the poison into his own goblet, because he would know that only a great fool would reach for what he was given. I am not a great fool, so I can clearly not choose the wine in front of you. But you must have known I was not a great fool, you would have counted on it, so I can clearly not choose the wine in front of me. Man in Black: You've made your decision then? Vizzini: Not remotely. Because iocane comes from Australia, as everyone knows, and Australia is entirely peopled with criminals, and criminals are used to having people not trust them, as you are not trusted by me, so I can clearly not choose the wine in front of you. Man in Black: Truly, you have a dizzying intellect. Vizzini: Wait till I get going! Now, where was I? Man in Black: Australia. Vizzini: Yes, Australia. And you must have suspected I would have known the powder's origin, so I can clearly not choose the wine in front of me. Man in Black: You're just stalling now. Vizzini: You'd like to think that, wouldn't you? You've beaten my giant, which means you're exceptionally strong, so you could've put the poison in your own goblet, trusting on your strength to save you, so I can clearly not choose the wine in front of you. But, you've also bested my Spaniard, which means you must have studied, and in studying you must have learned that man is mortal, so you would have put the poison as far from yourself as possible, so I can clearly not choose the wine in front of me. Man in Black: You're trying to trick me into giving away something. It won't work. Vizzini: IT HAS WORKED! YOU'VE GIVEN EVERYTHING AWAY! I KNOW WHERE THE POISON IS!
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  7. Wikipedia has a nifty list of human biases
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  8. I notice that advertising companies have picked up on this. Can't remember the company (I've already got mine) but "I'm not trying to save the world. I'm just saving up for a trampoline." is advertising genius.
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  9. "Another way in which information can be made more acceptable is by “framing” it in a way that is less threatening to a person’s worldview. For example, Republicans are far more likely to accept an otherwise identical charge as a “carbon offset” than as a “tax”, whereas the wording has little effect on Democrats or Independents—because their values are not challenged by the word “tax”.6" Somebody should really forward a copy of this to the Labor strategists that allowed the "carbon tax" to become the commonly accepted way of referring to the policy.
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  10. Question: Those of us most interested in the science are upset about political attacks on science and personal attacks on scientists. It happens that a lot of those attacks come from members of given political parties and people with strong political leanings, so a lot of us might identify those parties and leanings as being our enemies. Does this simple identification hurt our chances? Scientists may say, "The world is very likely X and it is very unlikely Y." Then someone jumps in from Political Group A and generalizes on the basis of their own conservation bias, "Yeah, those stupid Political Group B people are all idiots and deny logic and science." Are these people hindering progress by increasing the defensiveness with which anyone who identifies with Political Group B will approach the topic? Should we be trying to censor such supporters of science? Should we censor ourselves when identifying groups who resist the finding that "The world is likely X" and inhibit the dissemination of that finding? To make this 'real' in the context of internet discussions, are the 'concern trolls' correct about tone? Is PZ Myers wrong about the value of humiliation?
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  11. Steve, I wouldn't put Myers approach to humiliation on the same footing as your 'concern trolls'. I'm not fond of humiliation as a teaching, tutorial or discussion technique, but I know it has many adherents and a long, not-so-glorious history in universities. It's an extension of not suffering fools gladly. Probably marginally useful in training where people are looking to enter professions (in medicine or the military for instance) where clear thinking and rapid judgments can be crucial. I see it as a form of intellectual bullying. Mainly because it tends to become an habitual, charmless style rather than an occasional startling wake-up call. It's only saving grace is that it's honest. The same cannot be said for the 'concern trolls'. Where I see such interventions in discussions, I'm prepared to bet my wardrobe that it's the thin end of a wedge which generally finishes up going in a very unpretty direction.
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  12. Don't John or Stephan feel that the Hockey Stick could be seen by sceptics as an example of Confirmation Bias?
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  13. Shibui, 'skeptics' seem to be able to believe just about any nonsensical thing... so sure, I suppose they could see the hockey stick as 'confirmation bias'. It just wouldn't make any sense given that it has been replicated by numerous studies, analyzed and confirmed by the NAS, and even matched by a few 'skeptic' analyses that set out to disprove it. All of which demonstrates the very opposite of confirmation bias, but that isn't going to stop 'skeptics' believing otherwise.
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  14. What is a concern troll?
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    Moderator Response: [DB] See here.
  15. This is, I think, the key issue when dealing with so-called skeptics (that their world view prevents reality from getting within shouting distance of their opinions) WV Quine wrote about this in his book Web of Belief. Very interesting stuff. I have found, when posting on message boards, that if you make somewhat of a connection with a poster before "educating" them (my friend calls this hitting them on the head with a dead fish - making the sound "whop" - thus whopping them) - you don't necessarily get to agreement, but you might get to an agreement to think about it. And that connection can be relatively tenuous - something that gets the other person thinking about you as a human being - not a 'bot of opposition. I once achieved the effect by simply writing "That is the most rational post I've ever seen you make" (not calling him rational, just more rational than usual - which COULD have been taken as an insult). We ended up having a decent discussion. The most key point is that you can't change the 20% or so that are committed to being ignorant. You can change their behavior (ie trampolines and getting the gubment off our back) - but they will die believing that climate change is a HOAX.
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  16. Hi Adelady, thanks. I've been thinking about what you've written. Also re-thinking about what I wrote. I suspect that the proper approach depends on the target audience (surprise!). This debunking handbook is a tool for people who are trying to win recruits or at least trying to soften opposition. Myers' site and many internet fora may be primarily about reassuring and motivating those already on-side. So, combining this with what you've written about honesty, the lesson may be that brutal honesty is effective within ranks but gentle, careful dishonesty(?) is the right approach outside. Intuitively I want to think that both approaches are useful (and ethical!) so I don't like what I've written here about how to interact with opponents. But really, the goal is finding the right tactic to eradicate misinformation that is protected by someone's cognitive psychology. We have to trick them into lowering that guard. It's called effective communication, and I'm not sure it's entirely honest. To avoid the 'Worldview Backfire Effect' when speaking with someone whose worldview one finds odious, perhaps dishonesty is required. Note, on another thread someone pointed to a Naomi Klein article in The Nation in which she indicated the climate problem was perfect for the Left, because addressing it requires supporting things the Left wanted anyway. Almost immediately someone jumped in to say that Klein needed to be pushed back because this is ammunition for political opponents. In searching for the article a second ago I found a Guardian column called "Dear Naomi Klein: Please Stop Making My Work Difficult." Here Klein's use of the word "reparations" needed to stop. The last line in Part 4 above says that framing isn't "about manipulating people." But it is. All communication is! The question I'm asking is whether it helps to reject/censor communication from one's own side if it has a chance of backfiring. Or is exposure of the target to a diversity of approaches more effective?
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  17. Steve, tactic or tactful? I wouldn't describe tact as dishonest though many tactics could be. The big thing to remember always is that approaches within tertiary education, not just the hard sciences, tend to be robust ... to put it politely. otoh, I work with students who have various learning problems - very few of them have any intellectual difficulty - just a bad history of inappropriate teaching added to a simple visual or aural processing problem, sometimes short-term memory issues. The big thing is that a 'robust' approach is exactly opposite to what they usually need. And it is not dishonest to tell such a student that the fraction calculation they've done is 'clever!', even though standard testing tells you that they're 4 years behind in maths. It is clever - they just never had the chance to show it previously. When such students change their 'behind' measure by 2 or 3 years within 6 to 12 months, it's glaringly obvious that cleverness is not a problem, the teaching is. We tell ourselves that we're the realist, clear thinkers on scientific issues. But we can be unrealistic, muzzy thinkers about those we see as uninformed, misled or poor thinkers. Many teaching moments are missed if we give a standard scornful, oh, come on! keep up! response to someone who's clearly out of their depth. SkS is actually one of the best blogs at finding a responder who will make the most of a teaching moment. It's not dishonest to always treat people who come across as aggressive or dishonest themselves as though they are looking for information or support. Parents among us can recognise the stroppiness of toddlers or teenagers as cover for confusion or distress. And those of us who've worked with the general public have often encountered adults who are in the same boat. And seen our ham-handed colleagues make bad situations worse by focusing on the attitude rather than the problem. And we must keep in mind what we're asking. To be a realist about what's happening with climate, you have to stare into the horrifying abyss. And then you must take a deep breath and get on with your work, family and social life. Finding ways to tell people that it really is as near to catastrophic as dammit is to swearing - that we can avoid the very worst of it - but a lot of people will die anyway ... not the rosiest of teaching moments.
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  18. adelady - I am humbled by the hard-fought truth of your post 1t 17. How does that play out in effective communication on the internet on climate issues? I find my first instinct is to pull up facts and logic that refute the deniers untenable position. But, honestly, that approach is not working. I would appreciate your thoughts on specific approaches to combating/educating the tsunami of deniers out there.
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  19. Never fear, actually thoughtful, I can't claim too many wondrous moments of enlightenment of others on websites. One did come back to me when reading - was it number 3 or 5? - graphs do work very well. With some people, when the ground is prepared thoroughly. Got a strongly positive response with graphs a couple of times - though it was with Arctic sea ice stuff, not much wiggle room there. As for the tsunami. My approach is simply to keep plugging away. The big thing is never to focus on the responders. Always work on the basis that the silent readers are your real audience. And the hardest of all? Never press for an instant response, nor claim credit for an apparent change of mind. I learned this one long ago as a union person in management discussions. If I wanted a certain approach adopted, I'd just raise it in ordinary conversation. If it had legs, it would turn into common knowledge or 'accepted management practice' in 6 to 18 months. 'That was my idea', or 'I told you so' were always tempting. But I knew perfectly well that good ideas are worth much, much more than my personal claim on them - and that claim risked a negative response.
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  20. How do we get and maintain a world view.... New report exposes massive opinion industry in China.
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  21. Steve L, on humiliation: I've never seen that work well, but I have seen "gentle teasing" work to some extent. Especially some folks who are way over the top conspiracy theorists - good hearted teasing may get you into an interesting conversation that would not occur with humiliation...
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  22. We are dealing with worldview bias rather than debating in a scientific framework, for the most part we are talking to global warming deniers, who deny they are deniers for the most part. Really I am surprised if any single global warming denier ever changes their mind.

    They have been denying they are deniers, what do you think of the idea of using that against them. When you ask "is global warming real", they have sometimes shifted from answering "no", to answer "yes but".

    Am I right in thinking that when someone agrees with you in an argument, you should rub it in? For example I know that when they say "yes but", that what is to follow is an explanation, "yes but it isn't caused by man, might be beneficial, is the same thing as the medieval period, etc". But for all that talk, as frustrating as it is, when they say "yes but", haven't they essentially said "you are right, but ..."? So that, I could rub that in.

    For example, a politician from a particular political party which admits global warming is real like the rest of the world, could ask a politician from another political party which bitterly opposes any recognition of the reality of global warming, over and over: "I understand that you have admitted global warming is real, I really admire that". In response, "yes but (with long explanation)".

    Because, I think the tactic of saying I admit global warming is real but here is my long explanation in which I try to have everything both ways and merely sow doubt and stall. It seems like a clever tactic and it is infuriating, but maybe it can be another liability for them.

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