Culture Wars/Current Controversies

Why the backfire effect does not explain the durability of political misperceptions

By Brendan Nyhan

Previous research indicated that corrective information can sometimes provoke a so-called “backfire effect” in which respondents more strongly endorsed a misperception about a controversial political or scientific issue when their beliefs or predispositions were challenged. I show how subsequent research and media coverage seized on this finding, distorting its generality and exaggerating its role relative to other factors in explaining the durability of political misperceptions. To the contrary, an emerging research consensus finds that corrective information is typically at least somewhat effective at increasing belief accuracy when received by respondents. However, the research that I review suggests that the accuracy-increasing effects of corrective information like fact checks often do not last or accumulate; instead, they frequently seem to decay or be overwhelmed by cues from elites and the media promoting more congenial but less accurate claims. As a result, misperceptions typically persist in public opinion for years after they have been debunked. Given these realities, the primary challenge for scientific communication is not to prevent backfire effects but instead, to understand how to target corrective information better and to make it more effective. Ultimately, however, the best approach is to disrupt the formation of linkages between group identities and false claims and to reduce the flow of cues reinforcing those claims from elites and the media. Doing so will require a shift from a strategy focused on providing information to the public to one that considers the roles of intermediaries in forming and maintaining belief systems.

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