You’ve probably already seen The Oatmeal comic in your social media feed several times now.
Its beautiful illustrations are paired with an elegant, clever explanation about something called the “backfire effect.” Basically, it describes why people double down on their beliefs when presented with contradictory information.
The cartoon is powerful because we can all relate to that feeling of using facts to inform a heated political debate or sway someone’s opinion and getting nowhere. And that’s exactly the problem the comic’s author, Matthew Inman, wanted to address, especially in the wake of Donald Trump’s election.
The only problem is that political scientists aren’t sure the backfire effect is a real thing, and if it does exist, it may be rare.
We know what you’re thinking: Why do the fact police have to ruin the best thing that happened to your social media feed all week? The cartoon is pretty, funny, smart, and even hopeful about the importance of finding common ground when we vehemently disagree.
That’s all great stuff, and very important. But what you should keep in mind while reading the cartoon is that the backfire effect can be hard to replicate in rigorous research. So hard, in fact, that a large-scale, peer-reviewed study presented last August at the American Political Science Association’s annual conference couldn’t reproduce the findings of the high-profile 2010 study that documented backfire effect.
FWIW idea that backfire fx always happen = not even true in our initial study. But I’ve revised my priors a lot as we & others did more work
— Brendan Nyhan (@BrendanNyhan) March 26, 2017
Tom Wood and Ethan Porter, political scientists and assistant professors at The Ohio State University and George Washington University, respectively, and co-authors of the recent study, say they came to the subject of backfire effect as “acolytes.”
They found this…