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Why Do People Believe Stupid Stuff, Even When They're Confronted With the Truth?

The "backfire effect" helps explain how strange, ancient and kooky beliefs resist science, reason and reportage.

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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

- Francis Bacon

Science and fiction once imagined the future in which you now live. Books and films and graphic novels of yore featured cyberpunks surfing data streams and personal communicators joining a chorus of beeps and tones all around you. Short stories and late-night pocket-protected gabfests portended a time when the combined knowledge and artistic output of your entire species would be instantly available at your command, and billions of human lives would be connected and visible to all who wished to be seen.

So, here you are, in the future surrounded by computers which can deliver to you just about every fact humans know, the instructions for any task, the steps to any skill, the explanation for every single thing your species has figured out so far. This once imaginary place is now your daily life.

So, if the future we were promised is now here, why isn’t it the ultimate triumph of science and reason? Why don’t you live in a social and political technotopia, an empirical nirvana, an Asgard of analytical thought minus the jumpsuits and neon headbands where the truth is known to all?


Source: Irrational Studios/Looking Glass Studios

Among the many biases and delusions in between you and your microprocessor-rich, skinny-jeaned Arcadia is a great big psychological beast called the backfire effect. It’s always been there, meddling with the way you and your ancestors understood the world, but the Internet unchained its potential, elevated its expression, and you’ve been none the wiser for years.

As social media and advertising progresses, confirmation bias and the backfire effect will become more and more difficult to overcome. You will have more opportunities to pick and choose the kind of information which gets into your head along with the kinds of outlets you trust to give you that information. In addition, advertisers will continue to adapt, not only generating ads based on what they know about you, but creating advertising strategies on the fly based on what has and has not worked on you so far. The media of the future may be delivered based not only on your preferences, but on how you vote, where you grew up, your mood, the time of day or year – every element of you which can be quantified. In a world where everything comes to you on demand, your beliefs may never be challenged.

Three thousand spoilers per second rippled away from Twitter in the hours before Barack Obama walked up to his presidential lectern and told the world Osama bin Laden was dead.

Novelty Facebook pages, get-rich-quick websites and millions of emails, texts and instant messages related to the event preceded the official announcement on May 1, 2011. Stories went up, comments poured in, search engines burned white hot. Between 7:30 and 8:30 p.m. on the first day, Google searches for bin Laden saw a 1 million percent increase from the number the day before. Youtube videos of Toby Keith and Lee Greenwood started trending. Unprepared news sites sputtered and strained to deliver up page after page of updates to a ravenous public.

It was a dazzling display of how much the world of information exchange changed in the years since September of 2001 except in one predictable and probably immutable way. Within minutes of learning about Seal Team Six, the headshot tweeted around the world and the swift burial at sea, conspiracy theories began to bounce against the walls of our infinitely voluminous echo chamber. Days later, when the world learned they would be denied photographic proof, the conspiracy theories grew legs, left the ocean and evolved into self-sustaining undebunkable life forms.

 
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