Thursday, June 30, 2011

Confirmation Bias and the Backfire Effect

A few days ago Alternet published an article entitled "Why Do People Believe Stupid Stuff, Even When They're Confronted With the Truth?"  The article contains information about two phenomena that all non-believers must understand if they are to engage with believers. 

I have mentioned many times before that one should never expect to actually de-convert a believer.  One must wait for the believer, in most cases, to decide that it was his idea to stop believing.  The believer has to feel that his ego is intact.  If you "win" the debate, it will have the opposite effect.  His ego will feel threatened, and he will dig in his heels all the more.

The article I mentioned discussed this phenomenon in the context of presenting someone with evidence that contradicts one of his beliefs (regardless of whether the belief is about religion).  Numerous studies have shown that this contradictory evidence merely causes the believer to believe in his convictions more strongly than before.  This phenomenon has been named the "backfire effect" because the presentation of contradictory evidence usually backfires.

The backfire effect is the primary focus of the article, but it also mentions another well known phenomenon that has been established by numerous studies:  Confirmation bias.  Confirmation bias is the well-known tendency for most people to seek out and believe information that confirms their beliefs--even if it is of doubtful veracity.

Both of these tendencies are very much ego-driven.  They occur because the person exhibiting them feels an emotional need to protect his or her ego from the possibility that he or she could have been wrong about something.  Thus, the greater the other evidence for the egotism and narcissism of the believer, the more likely he or she will be to exhibit these tendencies.

These two tendencies, in addition to various social pressures, will make it very difficult to get through to a believer--especially someone who has reached adulthood and still believes.  Keep them in mind when discussing religion with a believer.  Toss in your thought barbs and walk away--no matter what they say or how tempted you are to respond.  Patience is more than a virtue, it is a necessity.

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