In Why Do People Believe Stupid Stuff Even When They're Confronted Wit...

David McRaney describes the backfire effect.

... a correction can further push readers away from the facts if the issue at hand is close to the heart. ... corrections tended to increase the strength of the participants’ misconceptions if those corrections contradicted their ideologies. People on opposing sides of the political spectrum read the same articles and then the same corrections, and when new evidence was interpreted as threatening to their beliefs, they doubled down. The corrections backfired. 

Apparently we accept without question "narrative scripts, stories that tell you what you want to hear, stories which confirm your beliefs and give you permission to continue feeling as you already do." But we pay an inordinate amount of attention to anything that challenges already held beliefs.


One hypothesis as to why this and the backfire effect happens is that you spend much more time considering information you disagree with than you do information you accept. Information which lines up with what you already believe passes through the mind like a vapor, but when you come across something which threatens your beliefs, something which conflicts with your preconceived notions of how the world works, you seize up and take notice. Some psychologists speculate there is an evolutionary explanation. Your ancestors paid more attention and spent more time thinking about negative stimuli than positive because bad things required a response. Those who failed to address negative stimuli failed to keep breathing.


The cognitive dissonance locks up the gears of your mind until you deal with it. In the process you form more neural connections, build new memories and put out effort – once you finally move on, your original convictions are stronger than ever.

McRaney talks as if this cognitive bias dooms us  because "the Internet unchained its potential, elevated its expression." Is he right? Merely by participating in Atheist Nexus instead of a wider social network, I limit myself. Search engines are tailoring the news we get, to our interests. *sigh* Are we spiraling down an ever-narrowing information age rabbit hole of self-destruction? 

(hotlinked from the article)

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Replies to This Discussion

I don't think religious people spend an inordinate amount of attention on not believing in God. It's just the opposite. They rationalize their beliefs which conflict with other information and move on. Don't you think?

The only reason I spend time reading religious material is to be able to withstand the "withering blows" of a theist's arguments. Seriously, I read those things so I may better show a religious person the errors. That's pretty much what atheists write about, too. It's hard to write about nothing. Would you read a book on how someone didn't play basketball, or didn't run in a marathon? You might however, read about why someone decided not to play basketball, or run in a marathon.

Why do people believe in stupid things? Because everyone else does, and it's easier than thinking for yourself I guess. Andy Thompson has a good talk on why we believe in Gods that I've seen a few times already.

Irecently asked myself the same question because of accusations I've made about christians and how circular their thinking and their bubble is where they get their information from about religion, their politics, etc. I, too, wrap myself in the same information as I have an allegiance to and notice that the same articles that my friends share tend to be from the same sources. We are regurgitating the same stuff over and over. But when I really look at myself, I find that I may have one more serious subject matter that I'm passionate about than others but, even in that subject, I really try to remain skeptical enough to not just 'believe' what I'm told and find corroboration.

I don't send the same articles my friends do. They usually send out the same re-run of the crap I saw ten years ago. Forward this to ten people for happiness!, We're all going to hell! OMG puppies!

So I joined Atheist Nexus!

...and that picture Ruth put up here...

I spend way too much time on the computer I think.

BUT! I rationalize it into small 30 minute increments!


Susi, I've been thinking about this a lot recently too, because I was accused of staying in my little bubble (those are even the words he used, too!) because I was reading The Believing Brain by Michael Shermer, who is a skeptic. This person who was accusing me of this didn't realize that I am reading it not only to figure out why people believe stupid things, but why I believe what I do also. But I do read lots of different perspectives, and I've read books from the believers' standpoint also (whether religion or UFOs or paranormal stuff or psychic ability, etc.). I really do think that I have been open-minded, while I think this person is very wrong about both his supposedly open mind and my supposedly narrow mind. (He has never offered any other perspectives or ideas or evidence, just loves to tell me how wrong I am, etc. Don't even get me started on his ignorant ideas about science! I'm a scientist, so this just drives me batty.)


But, as I tried to explain to him, it's not that I'm narrow-minded, it's that I have been studying and learning about these things for over twenty years. So it's ridiculous to assume that there are not things I can go ahead and discount as not true or not real. I know enough to be able to do that. The whole point in learning about these things is to figure out what's true or real and what isn't! So you don't have to always waste time reading about stuff you already know is false. And of course we want to read things that back up what we already believe. That's just normal. No one wants to convince themselves they are wrong, that just doesn't make sense.


But it also corroborates Shermer's hypothesis about belief, which is that the beliefs come first, and the evidence and support for those beliefs come second.

and sounds like how science starts out... theory, evidence, support gives us fact. when theory isn't supported with evidence then not a fact. that's the beauty of it and why i think we should come at anything from the perspective of a scientific mind. 'backfire thinking' maybe wouldn't stand a chance if we made an allegiance to that way of thinking.
Reading your comment, I'm reminded of the two approaches to the reading of Biblical scripture...exegesis and eisegesis.  It holds true for any contextual rendering of any text, on any topic...with the possible exception of science and math.

I haven't read his book yet, but the conclusion of his article about it in Scientific American is that the skepticism and self-correcting machinery of science is "the only escape we have from the belief-dependent realism trap created by our believing brains." [July 2011 issue, p85]


I don't actually spend any time reading religious material.  I find it distasteful.  I don't spend much time reading books on waste treatment either.  I don't spend much time on things I don't like.  Given the choice between waste treatment and the bible/koran/etc, I would probably read up on waste treatment.  That's where the bible rates for me.

I actually find the science of waste treat very interesting.

OMG center pivot-sprayers! (recently banned locally).

Tot- I know I am going to regret this.  Why are center pivot sprayers banned locally?  One of our local waste treatment plants was closed recently due to flooding, but last week when it was open, we drove by and I do believe it had the dreaded center pivot sprayers.  Thank goodness for people who like waste treatment. because I sure wouldn't want that job!

No, you won't regret it. Waste treat is awesome! Ok, maybe I exaggerate a little.

They're not for a human waste treatment center, they're for a dairy farm. There's a 5000 head farm being built East of here (Janesville WI), and they wanted to get rid of the manure using the pivot sprayers, which are essentially the irrigation sprayers. A local township (Harmony) banned them because the people living there would be down wind, and they are afraid of odors. The other township nearby (Bradford) tabled the ban earlier this month. They want an answer to the question: Is it water with manure in it, or manure with water in it? The State's position on this is basically "quit being weenies and just do it". Now aren't you glad you asked?




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