Knowledge and the Backfire Effect

The Backfire Effect from YANSS 093One of my favourite podcasts, You are Not so Smart came up with the goods again! David is two thirds (part 1 and part 2) of the way through a series on "The Backfire Effect" - how trying to convince someone to change their mind can actually reinforce their beliefs. An incredibly informative and needed lesson we all should know about and heed, especially since we are living in a "post-truth" society. But what pricked my ears was the idea of knowledge (or what they called information in the podcast) and mental models.

The ideas of "knowledge" are so highly complex (in a Cynefin sense). Not only do we have information that becomes knowledge in our heads through experience, repetition and calculation, but there are also different levels of how deeply that knowledge is held. Knowledge is most readily accepted if it fits our existing mental model.  It doesn't matter if that knowledge is gained through learning or "thinking about it", or most frighteningly, through experience. In other words, we don't necessarily believe what we are actually experiencing (or we rationalise it away)! Now that we know how our brains works, I see this as a call for change, not in the world, but in ourselves. We must become more curious and more open, seek out information and new things, learn about them and learn to appreciate them. Understand that alternative views exist and are just as valid to those who hold them as our views are to us. Embrace uncertainty and the fear of change.

And how to deal with the (un)changing mind:

  • Facts contrary to deeply held beliefs only strengthen the belief. Don't bother trying to win people over with arguments. You cannot push someone to change their mind, they must do it themselves.
  • Be aware we accept confirming evidence more easily that contrary evidence. Fact check a statement you agree with with the same rigour and skeptism as one you don't agree with.