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Why We Think We're Right, Especially When We're Wrong

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As the gun debate rages on in the United States, a common rhetoric appears from both sides: if only the opposing side understood the facts, we could change their minds.

In an interview with Boston Public Radio Friday, researcher David Hemenway presented overwhelming scientific proof that the mere presence of guns creates a more dangerous society, doing very little for self-defense. Yet gun owners, lawmakers and NRA members aren’t buying it, and new research reveals a psychological phenomenon that may explain why.

According to researcher Brendan Nyhan, sometimes learning the truth can lead us further down the road of misinformation. According to a recent study Nyhan co-authored with fellow Dartmouth College professor Jason Reifler, When Corrections Fail: The persistence of political misperceptions, the more we learn about the facts surrounding a situation, the more likely we are to retreat further into our own flawed belief system. “When you give people factual information, they’re actually more likely to resist that information,” Nyhan said in an interview with Boston Public Radio Wednesday. “[They] can end up believing more of the misperception that you’re trying to debunk.”

Nyhan coined the term “the backfire effect” to describe this phenomenon, and while he admits it isn’t always the case, “it’s a risk on the most controversial issues for people who are predisposed to believe in a given misperception,” he said.

In one study, Nyhan and Reifler tested mock news articles by manipulating whether corrective information was included in the article. They found that in the cases where corrective information was included, the “most vulnerable” group, (political conservatives) was more likely to believe in the misperception after seeing the information, compared to people who had never seen it in the first place. “This is something that’s fundamental to us as human beings.,” Nyhan said. “We’re skeptical of information that contradicts our predispositions, and we’re resistant to things that threaten our identities or values, so we often just don’t listen to information that we don’t like.”

This phenomenon, Nyhan says, plays itself out in daily life. You may have seen it at Thanksgiving dinner, when your vaguely-held beliefs are challenged. “You may actually counter-argue that information you don’t want to hear,” he said. “You think of reasons why it’s not true, and in the process of thinking of those, in these extreme cases you may come to believe in that thing that you’re trying to defend even more strongly than if you had never been challenged in the first place.”

In another study, Nyhan and Reifler tested how the backfire effect played into behavior that people believed they may choose in the future. “What we wanted to do in this study was to test the effects of correcting that myth that the measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine, the MMR vaccine, causes autism,” Nyhan said. “You often hear scholars suggesting that, or researchers in public health as well, that vaccine hesitancy is in part a product of misinformation, if we only corrected those misperceptions, people would change their mind, they would be more willing to vaccinate their kids. So we wanted to test that idea.”

It turns out that doctors are wrong— correcting people’s misinformed anti-vaxxer rhetoric only strengthens their beliefs. “When we gave people that corrective information, saying, in fact, the MMR vaccine is safe and there is absolutely no evidence it causes autism, we found that while belief in the myth itself went down, parents were less likely to say they would vaccinate a child with the MMR vaccine in the future, and that decline was concentrated among the people who had the least positive attitudes towards vaccines,” he said. “We think again they may have been counter-arguing, but in this case, they may have been doubling down on their questions or hesitations about vaccines, rather than the specific myth itself.”

Brendan Nyhan is a professor in the Department of Government at Dartmouth College, and a contributor to the New York Times column, The Upshot. To hear his full interview with Boston Public Radio, click on the audio link above.

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