The Backfire Effect

| Mon Sep. 15, 2008 12:22 PM PDT

THE BACKFIRE EFFECT....What happens when you tell people that someone has made a false claim? Shankar Vedantam reports:

Political scientists Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler provided two groups of volunteers with the Bush administration's prewar claims that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. One group was given a refutation -- the comprehensive 2004 Duelfer report that concluded that Iraq did not have weapons of mass destruction before the United States invaded in 2003. Thirty-four percent of conservatives told only about the Bush administration's claims thought Iraq had hidden or destroyed its weapons before the U.S. invasion, but 64 percent of conservatives who heard both claim and refutation thought that Iraq really did have the weapons. The refutation, in other words, made the misinformation worse.

A similar "backfire effect" also influenced conservatives told about Bush administration assertions that tax cuts increase federal revenue. One group was offered a refutation by prominent economists that included current and former Bush administration officials. About 35 percent of conservatives told about the Bush claim believed it; 67 percent of those provided with both assertion and refutation believed that tax cuts increase revenue.

Italics mine. Nyhan and Reifler found this "backfire" effect only among conservatives. Refutations had little effect on liberals, but it didn't cause them to actively believe the misleading information even more strongly.

Why? Reifler suggests it's because conservatives are more rigid than liberals. Maybe so. If I had to guess, though, I'd say it's because right-wing talkers have spent so many years deriding "so-called experts" that they now have negative credibility with many conservatives. The very fact that an expert says a conservative claim is wrong is taken as a good reason to believe the claim. This could probably be tested by doing a study of factual information outside the realm of politics and seeing if conservatives react the same way. If they do, maybe that's support for the generic rigidity theory. If not, it's support for the theory that conservatives simply distrust political elites.

For more, here is Reifler's online Q&A at the Washington Post this morning.

UPDATE: I should add that these weren't the only two questions Nyhan and Reifler asked. They also asked a question about stem cell research in which it was liberals who might be expected to resist the truth. They didn't find any backfire effect there either, though.

UPDATE: The full paper is here. Via email, Nyhan tells me that they tried to test my proposition that conservatives don't trust elite experts by varying the source of the refutations. Sometimes it was the New York Times, other times it was Fox News. "Surprisingly," he says, "it had little effect."

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