By Dr. Anthony Policastro

Our minds use a lot of psychological defense mechanisms to protect from things like anxiety and depression. Denial and rationalization are two common ones. One that we do not often hear about is something called the backfire effect.

This particular defense mechanism occurs when someone is presented with data that contradicts their beliefs. The expectation of the person delivering the information is that it will result in a change of their perception. However, the opposite effect often takes place. The doubters not only cling to their belief, but also believe it more fervently.

A good example of this is related to childhood vaccinations. The scientific data is clear as to their benefit. However, some individuals cling to the belief that they are harmful. One study looked at this. They presented the data on the effectiveness of vaccines to parents who objected to them. The result was that the parents continued to object to the vaccines. However, in addition, they became more strongly convinced that vaccines cause autism.

A second study looked specifically at flu vaccine. People who objected to the vaccine were given information about myths related to flu vaccine. The result was an increased determination to not get the flu vaccine.

A third study looked at politically charged topics. People who had certain political beliefs were provided information that contradicted those beliefs. The result was their original beliefs were strengthened despite the information.

A fourth study looked at voting preferences. Voters who were given negative information about a candidate that they favored did not believe the information. Instead they became more convinced that their candidate could not have done any of the things presented.

Because of this, we know that simply telling someone they are wrong will not change their mind. Trying to give them proof of that will only make their belief stronger.

Another study was done to show that an alternative approach might work better. They took a group of individuals who were upset about how much money was being spent on welfare. 

They provided them with two questions. The first was what percent of the budget they thought was actually spent on welfare programs. The second was what percent of the budget they thought should be spent on welfare programs.

The result was that everyone of them thought the amount of money being spent was higher than it actually was. In addition, the amount actually being spent was usually lower than what they thought the amount should have been. 

The result was that they now had information to process that allowed them to look at things from a different angle. This was different than someone trying to shove something down their throats. There was much less backfire effect.

The good news is that this is only a general trend. Not all individuals will react this way. However, enough of them do that we sometimes scratch our heads and wonder why that is the case. It is related to our psychological defense mechanisms and how they allow us to balance unpleasant ideas when they are presented to us.