The Backfire Effect: How Your Brain Is Keeping You Wrong

The Backfire Effect: How Your Brain Is Keeping You Wrong

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Everyone wants to improve themselves. Whether or not they decide to follow through and actually set about improving themselves, most everyone can identify areas in their lives they need to improve on. Some areas in our lives are easier to identify than others, and sometimes the biggest obstacle to improving ourselves is actually figuring out what needs improving. If we don’t see our blind spots, we can’t course correct. It’s as simple as that.

If we don’t see our blind spots, we can’t course correct. It’s as simple as that.

Most people are pretty good at discovering when they’re lying to themselves. Sometimes it can take a little while, but often at the end of the road you finally realize and admit the problem and begin to take steps to correct it.

There is, however, one thing that most people have a hard time realizing about themselves. It’s common to almost everyone, no matter their country, age, or creed, and it’s one of the hardest flaws to correct about ourselves. In fact, even once you realize it it’s hard to change. And yet it’s one of the most important flaws in ourselves to correct if we really want to achieve deep, meaningful self-improvement.

It’s the difficulty of admitting that we’re wrong.

Your first reaction to this might be to think that this doesn’t apply to you. You might think that you’re someone who can admit they’re wrong, someone who can truly take stock of themselves and course correct when they’re on the wrong track. But odds are that you probably aren’t, especially because humans are hardwired to not be able to see when they’re wrong.

It’s the difficulty of admitting that we’re wrong.

The Backfire Effect And How It Hurts Self-Improvement

This hardwiring is called the backfire effect, and it’s something that everyone falls prey to. Once we have a belief, we like to protect and nurture it. We try to shield it from changing, and we naturally and instinctively search out information that reinforces what we believe and are more willing to accept as true. Any information that contradicts what we believe we are more willing to dismiss as false. This is called the confirmation bias, and it’s well-known as a psychological phenomenon.

But that’s where the backfire effect comes in. This is when new information given to you that contradicts your currently held beliefs actually strengthens your position. In effect, the new information causes you to double down on your erroneous information instead of changing your mind – in other words, it backfires, which is what gives the effect its name.

Any information that contradicts what we believe we are more willing to dismiss as false. This is called the confirmation bias, and it’s well-known as a psychological phenomenon.

This is one of the biggest obstacles to self-improvement, because the more important a belief is to your core worldview the more likely your confirmation bias and backfire effect are going to be much stronger. This is especially true when it comes to self-improvement, and it can keep people trapped in cycles of negativity. Here’s an example.

Let’s say someone is convinced the world is out to get them, or that they’re unlucky. Everything that happens to them that’s bad is further proof that they simply drew the short end of the stick – whether late for work, someone dumps them, they get fired, or they don’t get that raise. It’s all because of the terrible number they drew in the cosmic lottery.

Let’s say someone is convinced the world is out to get them, or that they’re unlucky. Everything that happens to them that’s bad is further proof that they simply drew the short end of the stick

This type of person won’t react well when they’re confronted with evidence that they can change their life. If someone suggests them that they could’ve woken up earlier, left to work earlier, treated their spouse better, worked harder – they’ll shrug it off. They might even blame the person giving them advice, because the backfire effect neatly fits that person into the box of just another person who is dragging them down. In effect, by reinforcing their own negative beliefs through confirmation bias and the backfire effect, their brain is keeping them trapped in a cycle of negativity they will find very difficult to break.

I know, because I was one of those people. I would go to work and come back again, utterly convinced there was nothing I could do because the weight of the world was on me. In fact I had one friend who told me what I wrote above, and I didn’t believe him all because I thought he was just someone else peddling self-help nonsense that couldn’t help me.

through confirmation bias and the backfire effect, their brain is keeping them trapped in a cycle of negativity they will find very difficult to break.

How could it? I wasn’t the problem. The world was.

Thankfully I broke out of the cycle. It wasn’t easy, and it took a long time. And if you’re like me, this message might not go through. Not yet. But here it is, for when does.

Fighting The Backfire Effect

Be very, very aware of both confirmation bias and the backfire effect. Question and critique everything you’re doing in a self-improvement capacity. What seems out of your reach? What seems like something out of your control? Question it. Actually look at it. See if it’s truly out of your control. Maybe it’s not.

Maybe you are wrong.

Above all, never stop self reflecting and critiquing your process. Something you thought worked might not work. Don’t keep doing it! Have the courage to open yourself to new ideas, and admit that the ones you had were wrong for you. No one is right from the get-go – even the best make mistakes, even the best can be wrong.

It’s really hard to do this. Even now, knowing what I do, I still have a hard time admitting that things I thought to be true are false. My brain constantly screams at me to protect the wrong ideas – and I have to force myself to actually consider and weigh the evidence in front of me. Whether it’s a workout, diet, business strategy, or personal motivation strategy, you have to honestly be prepared to admit to yourself that it’s not working – and that you were wrong.

Fighting the backfire effect and admitting you’re wrong is one of the most important paths to self-improvement that anyone can set upon. It’s also the hardest, and many people live their entire lives without ever once being able to admit themselves that they’re wrong.

So how about you? Are you brave enough to admit when you’re wrong?