Do you consider the “Worldview Backfire Effect”?


One of the many things that make us human is the different and sometimes unexpected ways we respond to a situation.

Just because we think someone should respond in a certain way, doesn’t mean that they will. Well intentioned communications can illicit stronger objections than existed before. 

As communicators, we need to be vigilant to the potential range of responses that could arise from what and how we are communicating. Making a bad situation worse is not what anyone wants but it can happen. Termed the “worldview backfire effect” by psychologist Stephan Lewadownsky and his colleagues at the University of Western Australia, they recommend we consider whether our messages could be seen as threatening to someone’s values or their wider worldview and if be prepared for a worldview backfire effect (Lewandowsky, Ecker, Seifert, & Cook, 2012).

“When in Doubt, Shout” was how David Gal and Derek Rucker described the response people have their beliefs are questioned. It can make someone even more vociferous about their beliefs, as they try to prove they are right – but mostly to people who they feel will support their position. They examined individual’s religious beliefs and found that when people whose confidence in closely held beliefs was undermined, they were likely to try and persuade others of those beliefs, particularly people they felt were likely to be convinced of those views, in effect proving themselves to be right (Gal & Rucker, 2010). 

It’s possibly one of the reasons that facts alone won’t address an issue. Even facts from well-respected experts could cause someone to hold even more firmly to their own views. What’s more they may work to convince others of their own beliefs. This phenomenon has massive implications for organisations who are trying to get people to take a course of action that will reduce their risk of harm. Simply telling someone that they need to change their views or attitude based on rational arguments can backfire. 

Are there strategies we can adopt to prevent this response? The idea of one side being wrong and the other right is in itself a barrier. So genuine respect and tolerance for an existing position has to be the starting point. How can we expect others to respect our views or information if we are disparaging of theirs?

No-one likes to be told they are wrong so pre-empting your “contrary” view with a warning that this is an alternative perspective may in itself reduce the knee-jerk response. But don’t repeat the incorrect views as this simply reinforces the very position we are trying to change. Reframe the situation based on the real facts. 

And finally we will always have to accept that there will always be a small group of determined detractors who will never change their views so don’t give them an opportunity to backfire on you.


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