Monday, May 22, 2017

The Backfire Effect

Recently, I've been trying to wrap my head around how polarised discussions have become. For some reason, while taking part in current political discussions, one is left perplexed at certain opinions people hold especially when their positions are demonstrably flawed.

In looking into this phenomenon, I stumbled on David McRaney. Journalist, author and part time cookie monster. He's the reason I have a better understanding of cognitive science as he does a podcast dealing with the various topics within that category. I highly recommend his 3 part series on the backfire effect as I will be summarising a lot of what's covered in order to give my impressions on its impact in current discourse.

So what is the backfire effect?  It's a psychological phenomenon where, when one is presented with evidence counter to one's position, that evidence will be ignored and ones beliefs in their position will become stronger. This is not always the case but it does affect the majority of people. So much so that we're seeing a drastic polarisation when it comes to the political landscape.

Lets take climate change for example. We have myriad scientific studies supporting the fact that climate change is real and that it is man made. However, because individuals have politicised the counter narrative that it's a hoax or simply not caused by us, people have adopted that narrative as truth. In fact, scientists have become quite active in debunking claims that are providing a counter narrative via misinterpreted studies or outright lies, with little to no effect.

Keeping climate change as an example, one of the political options people want to use to curb man made climate change is a carbon tax. Now what if I were to tell you that in a previous instance the introduction of a carbon tax led to doubling energy costs for individuals in Australia? Take note of what's going on in your head when presented with this information. Are you willing to examine alternatives or are you still focused on making the carbon tax work?

Neuroscience has started to tackle this phenomenon. A recent paper published in Nature by Jonas Kaplan, Sarah Gimbel and Sam Harris(yes that Sam Harris) shows how the brain deals with politicised information vs non-politicised information. When political beliefs are challenged, the brain responds by activating our emotional centres that deal with threats as well as the centres that deal with personal identity.

There's a misconception that the less educated and/or intelligent you are, the more susceptible you will be to these types of cognitive biases. This is simply not the case. In fact, intelligence seems to make things worse. The reason is, that when challenged and because of the phenomenon such as the backfire effect, the more intelligent person will have an easier time forging excuses for their narrative than someone who is less intelligent.

In fact, what occurs is something called motivated reasoning and motivated scepticism. We'll seek out information or weave a narrative to confirm our beliefs and, once this is achieved to our satisfaction, we'll stop looking. Rarely will we go out of our way to seek arguments and evidence against our beliefs. Couple that with the backfire effect when presented with evidence that demonstrably contradicts a held belief and you have the current political climate.

So now that you are aware of the backfire effect, the real question that remains is, what do we do to combat it in our every day discourse? Short answer is we're still working on it. There doesn't seem to be a concrete way as of yet to try to get individuals to be mindful of their own biases and correct for it. David McRaney explained in his podcast that removing a falsehood would be like severing the leg off a table. If it is not replaced with something to stabilise one's identity, the brain simply can't deal with that kind of instability.

Now I like that idea but I'm not sure exactly how to go about using this in discourse or debate. Knowing what I know now about how the majority of people perceive matters they identify with, I'm not even sure debate and discourse is even productive. It's possible that the entire exercise is just mental masturbation without the mess. And the problem has only become so noticeable due to our ability to fuel our biases via social media.

At this point I tried turning my attention to people who have gone through the process of changing their minds when it came to their core beliefs and identity. One individual I focused on in particular was Leah Remini. Leah Remini recently came out with a series called Scientology the Aftermath. It deals with her and other individual's struggles within the church and what led to their eventual departure. One theme that kept coming up, was family.

See the church has this policy where, whenever someone starts doing things against the church's wishes, they will be labelled a suppressive  person. If this happens, any and all contact with that individual, despite your relationship with them, is to be severed, even if you are related. For those like Leah, who have strong family values, it seems to have caused a rift between those two identity markers which eventually led  her, and others, to leaving the church. Now there are myriad other practices within the church that have a negative effect but ultimately, this seemed to be the one thing that kept surfacing.

I believe that this may be one of the keys that encourages introspection and gets people to ultimately change their minds. Think of a person's identity as something holding multiple components. Things like family, career, political affiliation, recreational activity; all help fill up the void of what comprises our personhood. Each person has this kind of identity map and any outside influences that try to attack those components will be susceptible to something like the backfire effect. Other things, like food preferences or trivialities, tend not to fall into the core components of one's identity map and are therefore a lot more malleable.

Change seems to occur when one of the core components comes into conflict with another. In that instance, the stronger component seems to be able to defeat the other, removing the proverbial table leg. In the case of Leah, and others in her situation, they were faced with a choice between the church and family. Only then did she start seeking out stories relevant to the church's abhorrent behaviours and adopted them as fact.

Perhaps in the case of debate and discourse one needs to put themselves in a situation where those components come into conflict. For instance, in regards to climate change, press the issue that the next generation and one's own offspring will have to face struggles that only the most unfortunate among us have had to deal with. Maybe then someone will be less likely to reject facts and start taking them seriously.

Otherwise our very nature could be what leads us straight into situations that could have been avoided. Realising that we're not so smart is the first step.

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