Presenting Facts Can Sometimes Backfire

Presenting Facts Can Sometimes Backfire People tend to have contempt for ideas that they disagree with. What’s worse is the possibility that some people, when presented with information that goes against their beliefs, may not only snub their challengers, but also double down on their original viewpoints. Cognitive psychologists call this the backfire effect.

For instance, voters have been shown to judge the political candidate they support even more favorably after the candidate is attacked by the other party. In the same way, parents opposed to vaccinations have been shown to become more convinced of their alleged apprehension that vaccination causes autism after reviewing studies showing that vaccinating their kids is the best course of action.

The backfire effect explains why, when people argue against conflicting information strongly enough, they wind up with more supportive arguments for their cause, which further aligns them with their preexisting positions.

The backfire effect is related to confirmation bias—the rampant propensity to seek, interpret, synthesize, and recall information in a way that substantiates one’s preconceptions. For instance, when people read an article that describes both sides of an issue, they tend to select that side that they happen to agree with—thus reinforcing their viewpoints.

See also: the phenomenon of group polarization explains why people who share opinions and beliefs get together in groups, they tend to be even more persuaded in their beliefs.

Group Polarization: Why Like-Mindedness is Dangerous

Group Polarization Strengthens of the Opinions of Each Person in the Group

Group Polarization: Why Like-Mindedness Is Dangerous When people who share opinions and beliefs get together in groups, they tend to be even more persuaded in their beliefs—they become extreme in their views. In other words, a group of likeminded people will reinforce one another’s viewpoints. This phenomenon is called group polarization.

Social psychologists reason that people use the choices and persuasions of others as heuristics to steer their lives in this complex world. As the English philosopher and mathematician Alfred North Whitehead once said, “Civilization advances by extending the number of operations we can perform without thinking about them.”

Social Media and Group Polarization

As people converge to likeminded people in virtual neighborhoods, they tend to operate in intellectual bubbles. Given that social media allows participants to curate their sources of information, it is easier than ever before for people to cruise through their day-to-day lives without meeting anyone who disagrees with them. Studies have shown that hanging around a group of likeminded folks makes people more scornful of differing viewpoints, than they are as individuals.

Group polarization explains partly the proliferation of fake news on social media—people accept dubious claims that support their own viewpoint while disregarding facts that conflict with their views. In the confusing times we live in, people get lost in the unstructured, unattributed noise of headlines and repeat the loudest declarations as facts without checking their soundness.

The Persuasive Ability of Social Proof in Consumer Behavior

'Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion' by Robert Cialdini (ISBN 006124189X) In the bestselling Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, psychologist Robert Cialdini observes that advertisers tend to describe their products as “fastest-growing,” “#1 in the market,” or “best-selling.” Advertisers believe that consumers need to hear not only that a product is good, but also that others think so.

As per group polarization, when people are considering what to do or buy, they often look to what others are doing or have done, and take their cue from others. When a product, service, or an idea strikes out as particularly admired or prevailing, consumers intuitively take social proof that this is the right—and acceptable—choice.

Idea for Impact: Hanging Around with Like-Minded People is a Dangerous Intellectual Trap

The French entomologist Jean-Henri Fabre once wrote, “Seek those who find your road agreeable, your personality and mind stimulating, your philosophy acceptable, and your experiences helpful. Let those who do not, seek their own kind.”

Look for people who respect your worldview—even if drastically different from theirs—but can present alternative perspectives.

Regular exposure to differing views serves to sharpen your thinking and reasoning abilities—and may perhaps even reexamine your positions. As I’ve said before, wisdom comes from facing counter-arguments. The only test of a well-constructed opinion is that it can defend itself.

The More You Believe in Yourself, the Less You Need Others to Do It for You

If you’re like most people including me, you struggle with criticism. You find criticism harsh and unhelpful because criticism strikes at the very conflict between two deep-seated human desires—the desire to be accepted just the way you are and the desire to learn and grow. Consequently, even a nonthreatening comment can leave you feeling uneasy, irritated, angry, and vulnerable.

The More You Believe in Yourself, the Less You Need Others to Do It for You Your sensitivity for disapproval is often justified. Your detractors aren’t perhaps thinking straight. When they pass judgments about you, their critical pronouncements often reveal a great deal about themselves and little about you. Psychologists contend that critics, in offering their disapprovals, are subconsciously projecting their own insecurities, pessimism, and fears onto you.

Most people are driven by emotions and not hard evidence. They tend to impulsively estimate your merits, instead of evaluating you thoughtfully. Therefore, when you confront those inevitable disapprovals, disappointments, and setbacks, don’t pity yourself and feel sorry for the conditions you face in life. Don’t get hung up on waiting for others to give you positive strokes. Give yourself gratitude for your efforts, and choose to get back up, dust yourself off, and move on.

'The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius Antoninus' by A.S.L. Farquharson (ISBN 0192827901) Life isn’t easy for anyone. But it could be made easier by valuing yourself when you confront adversity, hardships, and disapprovals. As the Roman Emperor and Stoic Philosopher Marcus Aurelius wrote about the art of forbearance in Meditations (trans. A.S.L. Farquharson,)

Remind yourself of the kinds of things you have passed through and the kinds you have had strength to endure; that the story of life is written and your service accomplished. How many beautiful things have been revealed, how many pleasures and pains you have looked down upon, how many ambitions ignored, to how many unkind persons you have been kind!

Coaching, feedback, advice, criticisms, and comments are great tools that can help you learn and grow, but only when they come from the right people—benevolent people who are knowledgeable, understanding, supportive, and, most importantly, have your best interests at heart. When they come from others, the best response is to listen, mull them over objectivity (Was the criticism offered in good faith? Was the criticism true?), and disregard them if they don’t seem justified.

Idea for Impact: When people try to tell you who you are, consider them with a grain of salt. You are the sole curator, guardian, and defender of your integrity and your sense of self-worth. So, don’t sweat when others think less than you actually are. Care less for what other people think. Believe in yourself.

You Can’t Know Everything

“Have intellectual humility. Acknowledging what you don’t know is the dawning of wisdom.”
Charlie Munger

You Can't Know Everything, So Embrace Uncertainty In the course of life, some of the most dangerous circumstances to be in are when you think you’re the smartest person in the room. Smarts without humility can get you into trouble because hubris leads to intellectual arrogance and a blatant disregard for opinions and judgments that are contrary to the ones you already hold.

Recognizing that you can’t know everything and that you will never know everything must not prevent you from acting. Rather, you must embrace uncertainty and take into account the possibility that you could be wrong.

Embrace Uncertainty

Risk is what is left behind after you think you’ve thought of everything you currently can. Risk embraces all those matters that are unaccounted for—everything that you need to protect yourself from.

Intelligence transforms into wisdom only when you recognize that, despite your confidence in the present circumstances, you cannot predict how things will play out in the future. You will not be able to make an optimal decision every time.

The conduct of life is not a perfect science. Rather, it is an art that necessitates acknowledging and dealing with imperfect information. Be willing to act on imperfect information and uncertainty. Set a clear course today and tackle problems that arise tomorrow. Learn to adapt more flexibly to developing situations.

Idea for Impact: The wisest people I know are the ones who acknowledge that they don’t know everything and put strategies in place to shield themselves from their own ignorance. Make risk analysis and risk reduction one of the primary goals of your intellectual processes.

Care Less for What Other People Think

Care Less for What Other People Think - Quote by Theodore Roosevelt

The American sociologist Charles H. Cooley once described the irrational and unproductive obsession with what others think; he said, “I am not what I think I am and I am not what you think I am; I am what I think that you think I am.”

Some people care excessively about what others think. They place undue importance on external validation, so much so that they sometimes place more emphasis on the commendation or disapproval they receive than on their actual actions.

The great Roman Emperor and Stoic Philosopher Marcus Aurelius wrote in Meditations (trans. Gregory Hays,)

It never ceases to amaze me: we all love ourselves more than other people, but care more about their opinion than our own. If a god appeared to us—or a wise human being, even—and prohibited us from concealing our thoughts or imagining anything without immediately shouting it out, we wouldn’t make it through a single day. That’s how much we value other people’s opinions—instead of our own.

'Self-Reliance' by Ralph Waldo Emerson (ISBN 1604500093) In Self-Reliance, American philosopher and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson encouraged people to shun conformity and false consistency, and instead follow their own instincts and ideas:

Live no longer to the expectation of these deceived and deceiving people with whom we converse. Say to them, O father, O mother, O wife, O brother, O friend, I have lived with you after appearances hitherto. Henceforward I am the truth’s. Be it known unto you that henceforward I obey no law less than the eternal law. I will have no covenants but proximities. I shall endeavor to nourish my parents, to support my family, to be chaste husband of one wife,—but these relations I must fill after a new and unprecedented way. I appeal from your customs. I must be myself. I cannot break myself any longer for you, or you. If you can love me for what I am, we shall be happier. If you cannot, I will still seek to deserve that you should. I will not hide my tastes or aversions. I will so trust that what is deep is holy, that I will do strongly before the sun and moon whatever only rejoices me, and the heart appoints. If you are noble, I will love you; if you are not, I will not hurt you and myself by hypocritical attentions. If you are true, but not in the same truth with me, cleave to your companions; I will seek my own. I do this not selfishly, but humbly and truly. It is alike your interest, and mine, and all men’s, however long we have dwelt in lies, to live in truth. Does this sound harsh to-day? You will soon love what is dictated by your nature as well as mine, and, if we follow the truth, it will bring us out safe at last.

Don’t become dependent on what others think of you

'What Do You Care What Other People Think' by Richard P. Feynman (ISBN 0393320928) Feedback, advice, criticisms, and comments are great tools that can help you learn and grow, but only when they come from the right people—people who are knowledgeable, understanding, supportive, and have your best interests at heart. When they come from others, the best response is to listen, mull them over objectivity, and disregard them if they don’t seem right.

Idea for Impact: Don’t do things differently just because somebody asked you to or just because you want to be different for somebody. Do things differently because it makes sense to you. (Read my articles on discipline and motivation.)

Ever Wonder If The Other Side May Be Right?

Considering different viewpoints on any issue

The French essayist and novelist Andre Gide once wrote, “Believe those who are seeking the truth; doubt those who find it.”

Scratch the surface of any thinking ideologue and you’ll find not certainties but contradictions and doubts.

Darwin’s doubts about natural selection and evolution

Even after the publication of his seminal Origin of Species and The Descent of Man, Charles Darwin had crippling doubts about some aspects of natural selection. Specifically, if natural selection was to have lasting effects, evolutionary advances had to be conserved and passed on from one generation to the next. Darwin agreed with scientists who argued that his evolutionary theory failed to explain how variations are transmitted from parents to their offspring.

It was not until the 1930s that biologists started to study Gregor Mendel’s work on genetic inheritance and heredity in conjunction with Darwin’s theory of natural selection. Only then did biologists come to understand how variation of characteristics is passed on to new generations and how evolution is a process of descent with modification.

Seek to have an idea tomorrow that contradicts your idea today

At a Q&A at American web application company Basecamp, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos opined that people who are “right a lot” are those who had a flexible mindset and often changed their minds. Summarizing the conversation, Basecamp co-founder Jason Fried wrote,

[Bezos] observed that the smartest people are constantly revising their understanding, reconsidering a problem they thought they’d already solved. They’re open to new points of view, new information, new ideas, contradictions, and challenges to their own way of thinking.

He doesn’t think consistency of thought is a particularly positive trait. It’s perfectly healthy—encouraged, even—to have an idea tomorrow that contradicted your idea today.

This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have a well formed point of view, but it means you should consider your point of view as temporary.

What trait signified someone who was wrong a lot of the time? Someone obsessed with details that only support one point of view. If someone can’t climb out of the details, and see the bigger picture from multiple angles, they’re often wrong most of the time.

Idea for Impact: Wisdom comes from seeking wisdom

Want to learn, expand your worldview, and broaden your mindset? Start by seeking out the right people—mix with people other than those from your own background (professional, cultural, social, academic, racial, ethnic, etc.) Remember that birds of a feather do flock together. Instead of preferring the company of other people from similar backgrounds, try investing some time with people who have viewpoints that contrast your own.

French entomologist Jean-Henri Fabre once wrote, “Seek those who find your road agreeable, your personality and mind stimulating, your philosophy acceptable, and your experiences helpful. Let those who do not, seek their own kind.” Look for those who respect your worldview—even if drastically different from theirs—but can present alternative perspectives and push you into considering different viewpoints on any issue of mutual interest.

Nothing Deserves Certainty

Bertrand Russell on Certainty and Self-Doubts

In a 1960 TV interview, celebrated British mathematician and philosopher Bertrand Russell said,

I think nobody should be certain of anything. If you’re certain, you’re certainly wrong because nothing deserves certainty. So one ought to hold all one’s beliefs with a certain element of doubt, and one ought to be able to act vigorously in spite of the doubt. … One has in practical life to act upon probabilities, and what I should look to philosophy to do is to encourage people to act with vigor without complete certainty.

Intellectual Censorship

It’s regrettable that many ideas imprinted into the soft putty of an unformed mind sometimes remain there forever. Many people seem to believe the very first thing they’re told and stick with it for the rest of their life. What’s worse, they are often willing to defend that position to their death. They engage in intellectual censorship: not only do their core beliefs remain unexamined, but also any attempt to challenge their beliefs is taken as a grievous insult. They don’t realize that the suppression of opposing viewpoints doesn’t add credibility to an argument.

One reason could be laziness. In On Being Certain, Robert Burton highlights the neuroscience behind the discrepancies between genuine certainty and the feeling of certainty. Arguing that certainty is an emotion just like anger, passion, or sorrow, Burton provides summaries of many studies that show that people’s certainty about their beliefs is an emotional response that is distinct from how they process those beliefs. Consequently, once they develop a “that’s right” disposition about a subject matter, their brain subconsciously protects them from wasting its processing effort on problems for which they have already found a solution that they believe is good enough. In other words, their cerebral laziness subconsciously leads them to “do less” by simply embracing certainty rather than reexamining their assumptions.

Intellectual Censorship and Intellectual Arrogance

Intellectual Arrogance and Philosophical Idolatry

One outcome of feeling certain is intellectual arrogance. People who live by the illusion of their own self-sufficiency will shut their arrogant minds to alternative perspectives and even turn hostile towards those who possess or produce new ideas, since they regard their own truths as absolute without the need for alternative viewpoints or even amplification of their own convictions. On the other hand, people who recognize their limitations will necessarily feel modest about themselves and be enthusiastic to broaden their points of view. They actively seek differing viewpoints with compassion and gratitude and seek to cross-examine their convictions, strengthen them, explore alternative viewpoints, and perhaps discover new truths.

The 16th century English philosopher Francis Bacon wrote (per The New Organon and Related Writings,)

The human understanding when it has once adopted an opinion draws all things else to support and agree with it. And though there be a greater number and weight of instances to be found on the other side, yet these it either neglects and despises, or else by some distinction sets aside and rejects, in order that by this great and pernicious predetermination the authority of its former conclusion may remain inviolate.

The 19th Century British political philosopher John Stuart Mill actively advocated understanding every side of an argument because he wanted to “see that no scattered particles of important truth are buried and lost in the ruins of exploded error.” Mill explained in Early Essays:

Every prejudice, which has long and extensively prevailed among the educated and intelligent, must certainly be borne out by some strong appearance of evidence; and when it is found that the evidence does not prove the received conclusion, it is of the highest importance to see what it does prove. If this be thought not worth inquiring into, an error conformable to appearances is often merely exchanged for an error contrary to appearances; while, even if the result be truth, it is paradoxical truth, and will have difficulty in obtaining credence while the false appearances remain.

Uncertainty is a Fundamental Tenet of Thinking, Discovery, and Invention

Speaking of the virtues of uncertainty and doubt in the scientific and unscientific methods of questioning, experimenting, and understanding, the celebrated physicist Richard Feynman said in The Meaning of It All,

This experience with doubt and uncertainty is important. I believe that it is of very great value, and one that extends beyond the sciences. I believe that to solve any problem that has never been solved before, you have to leave the door to the unknown ajar. You have to permit the possibility that you do not have it exactly right. Otherwise, if you have made up your mind already, you might not solve it.

When the scientist tells you he does not know the answer, he is an ignorant man. When he tells you he has a hunch about how it is going to work, he is uncertain about it. When he is pretty sure of how it is going to work, and he tells you, “This is the way it’s going to work, I’ll bet,” he still is in some doubt. And it is of paramount importance, in order to make progress, that we recognize this ignorance and this doubt. Because we have the doubt, we then propose looking in new directions for new ideas. The rate of the development of science is not the rate at which you make observations alone but, much more important, the rate at which you create new things to test.

If we were not able or did not desire to look in any new direction, if we did not have a doubt or recognize ignorance, we would not get any new ideas. There would be nothing worth checking, because we would know what is true. So what we call scientific knowledge today is a body of statements of varying degrees of certainty. Some of them are most unsure; some of them are nearly sure; but none is absolutely certain. Scientists are used to this.

Reiterating the virtues of uncertainty in a discussion of the thought process of the French Renaissance philosopher Michel de Montaigne, author Nassim Nicholas Taleb writes in Fooled by Randomness (see my summary of this book):

It certainly takes bravery to remain skeptical; it takes inordinate courage to introspect, to confront oneself, to accept one’s limitations— scientists are seeing more and more evidence that we are specifically designed by mother nature to fool ourselves.

And British naturalist Charles Darwin wrote in his Autobiography,

As far as I can judge, I am not apt to follow blindly the lead of other men. I have steadily endeavoured to keep my mind free so as to give up any hypothesis, however much beloved (and I cannot resist forming one on every subject), as soon as facts are shown to be opposed to it.

Nothing Deserves Certainty

It’s a Narrow Mind that Stays Rooted in One Spot

The American jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. wrote in Ideals and Doubts, “To have doubted one’s own first principles is the mark of a civilized man.”

An important characteristic of an educated person is an inquiring mind and the pursuit of intellectual growth. People of sound conviction have nothing to fear from civil debates and are willing to throw a wide net in exploring their own beliefs. They are ready to give up the refuge of a false dogma. They have no fear of meeting minds that may be sharply different from their own. Seek alternative—even opposing—perspectives to broaden your perspectives and persistently examine your biases and prejudices.

Charlie Munger, the widely respected vice-chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, constantly reminds us that one of our utmost intellectual duties is to scrutinize our most cherished ideas as ruthlessly and as intellectually as we can—something that’s hard to do.

Idea for Impact: Expose Yourself to Alternate Viewpoints and Grow Intellectually

If you earnestly survey an opposing viewpoint and find it is still erroneous, you have the satisfaction of knowing that your views withstood intellectual scrutiny. Alternatively, if you determine that another viewpoint is partly or wholly right, you have the equal satisfaction of softening your rigid position, setting your opinions right, and feeling smarter for not succumbing to your ego’s demand to cling to a sense of certainty. The German writer and philosopher Johann Wolfgang von Goethe once wrote, “Let no one be ashamed to say yes today if yesterday he said no. Alternatively, to say no today if yesterday he said yes. For that is life. Never to have changed—what a pitiable thing of which to boast.”

By all means, dismiss ideas if you find that they lack coherence, evidence, or argumentative power—but don’t dismiss ideas merely because they disagree with your existing viewpoints. As the French writer and philosopher Voltaire said, “Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd.”

Does the Consensus Speak For You?


Charles Darwin Skirted the Danger That Is Public Scorn

Charles Darwin’s fear of disapproval almost pushed him into oblivion. Fear of others’ judgments just about forced Darwin to miss the title of the father of evolution.

Charles Darwin For over a decade, while Darwin (1809–1882) compiled a vast body of evidence in support of evolution, he suffered crippling anxiety whenever he considered publishing his theories. His principles of evolution by natural selection directly contrasted with the dominant views on the origin of life per Christian theology.

Darwin feared that publishing his views on evolution would affect his standing among his Victorian peers and with his outstandingly pious wife, Emma Darwin. To his botanist friend Joseph D. Hooker, Charles Darwin wrote, “it is like confessing a murder.”

Only before fellow British naturalist and anthropologist Alfred Russel Wallace (1823–1913) published his independent conclusions about evolution through natural selection did Darwin give up his fear of non-conformity. In 1889, he published his seminal “On the Origin of Species”. Darwin thus secured his place as one of most influential persons in human history by a slender lead.

To Conform Is to Be Treated as “One Of”

Our social and professional lives are brimming with rituals, customs, norms, rubrics, rules, procedures, and guidelines that we are expected to observe. There is a clear benefit to be gained from this conformity: when we follow the structures imposed on us, we fit in.

While conformity is often important to group cohesiveness and social acceptance, when conformity becomes unquestioning, we are vulnerable to groupthink. Groupthink creates a powerful pattern of conceptualizing, thinking, and living that disregards alternative rubrics and ignores alternate attitudes and behaviors.

Does the Consensus Speak For You

Don’t Passively Absorb Other’s Ideals

Nonconformance to social and organizational norms (engaging in deviant attitudes and behavior) can be problematic. As individuals, we risk being shut out, excluded, and disregarded. Possessing a life-philosophy and mindset that run counter to our peers and wider community can indeed be troubling. Therefore, the pressure to conform dominates our everyday lives. Too often, we silently bear the inconveniences of adherence and sacrificing our individuality.

In a 2001 interview with Charlie Rose discussing “Letters to a Young Contrarian”, author Christopher Hitchens, the outspoken critic of theocracy and religion and arguably the most masterful rhetorician of our times, said the following about being a contrarian:

'Letters to a Young Contrarian' by Christopher Hitchens (ISBN 0465030335) It’s not for everybody. Not everyone wants to always be an outcast or out of step or against the stream. But if you do feel that the consensus doesn’t speak for you, if there’s something about you that makes you feel that it would be worth being unpopular or marginal for the chance to lead your own life and have a life instead of a career or a job, then I can promise you it is worthwhile, yes.

In the same vein, Apple’s Steve Jobs said in his famous 2005 commencement address at Stanford,

Don’t be trapped by dogma which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition.

Idea for Impact: Shun Synthetic Conformity

Where practically possible, shun synthetic conformity. Question the authorities. Never feel content with the limits of your mind. Think independently. Form your own opinions. Engage your knowledge and your wisdom to discover your uniqueness. Exercise your freedom to determine your own experience in life instead of having it imposed by someone else. As Eleanor Roosevelt said in “You Learn by Living”, “When you adopt the standards and the values of someone else or a community or a pressure group, you surrender your own integrity. You become, to the extent of your surrender, less of a human being.”