Jeremy Smith Feb 19, 2019 11:32:02 AM 47 min read

The Backfire Effect: You’re Right to Get Emotional About this Cognitive Bias

In today’s social media climate, anyone can publish negative information about you or your business. If it goes viral, it can act like a virus — seriously harming or even killing your business. And worse, like battling a real virus with a weak antibiotic, your efforts to correct phony information can strengthen false beliefs.

Correcting misinformation can backfire and cause people to put more stock in false information, regardless of the facts. But, if handled correctly, you can wipe out the scourge of the “backfire effect.”

image of a virus(Image source)

Below I explain how to counter the potentially destructive backfire effect by injecting emotion into your marketing and by using the facts to effectively tell your brand’s story.

A little while back, I wrote a huge article that listed 67 cognitive biases and simple ways to exploit them to better your marketing and conversion rates. As you might expect, a list of 67 anything doesn’t leave a heckuva lot of room for explanation.

So, I’m heading back to the list now and then to put some more meat on my explanations of each bias and how to make them work in your favor.

As I said in the previous cognitive biases post, the backfire effect occurs when evidence that goes against a person’s beliefs causes them to hold onto their beliefs even more strongly. I said there’s little you can say or do to counter the backfire effect; the fact that facts backfire is the whole problem.

You can be hurt badly if people believe misinformation about you or your business. Correcting negative rumors isn’t as easy as explaining the facts.

Remember this logo?

P&G_logo(Image source

For more than 140 years, Procter & Gamble’s man-in-the-moon logo was the symbol of one of our country’s most successful household goods companies. Then in 1980, a false rumor sprang up and spread like the plague.

Many people and some published reports claimed the president of P&G had appeared on TV and said his company gave a portion of its profits to the Church of Satan. The rumor said further that the company’s logo depicted the Devil and contained “666” imagery.

As the Snopes site details, the supposed sources of the bogus claim differed. Some said the P&G leader had been on Phil Donahue’s talk show; later it was Sally Jessy Raphael’s show. Raphael even addressed the issue on her show’s FAQs page (scroll down), saying, “The president of Procter and Gamble has NEVER appeared on The Sally Show...NEVER. Nor has any other person in authority at P&G.”

In 2007, P&G won $19.25 million in a lawsuit against four former Amway distributors accused of spreading the rumor. (Amway, now known as Alticor, is a P&G competitor.)

But Procter & Gamble eventually had to change its logo and drop the man on the moon, though the crescent moon was brought back in 2013.

Facts did not help P&G stop a vicious rumor.

Instead, if you are facing harm from misinformation, you have to win people through emotional means. Once you make them feel rather than think, you can actually get them thinking more like you want them to. A study of online customer reviews, for example, found that movie reviews with emotional content were seen as more helpful by those who read them than reviews without emotional language.

Of course, imbuing your marketing material with the kind of emotional impact that will sway customers who already think badly of you is easier said than done. But in this article, I am going to help you see how you can do it.

And I am going to explain that, actually, you can counter the backfire effect with facts. Or with fiction, for that matter.

But first, let’s get some facts straight.

Explaining the Backfire Effect

Much of the research into the backfire effect, or how people dig in their heels in the face of information that runs counter to their beliefs, uses discussions of political issues to see how people react to facts and falsehoods.

But the same cognitive bias that stymies political debate can hurt your business if negative information about you or your product is spread through social or news media. As honestly and fervently as you explain the facts, the backfire effect can cause your potential customers to discount what you say.

Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler, the academics who coined the term “backfire effect,” established its authenticity in a series of tests that involved political statements and public policy issues.

Test subjects were divided according to their ideological subgroups (“a seven-point Likert scale from ‘very liberal’ to ‘very conservative’”) and given made-up news reports that included “either a misleading claim from a politician, or a misleading claim and a correction.”

Nyhan and Reifler found that corrections frequently failed to dissuade test participants from believing the false information if the initial report was in line with their views. “Indeed, in several cases, we find that corrections actually strengthened misperceptions among the most strongly committed subjects,” they said.

Thus the “backfire effect,” in which setting the record straight only makes matters worse.

myth vs fact(Image source)

Others suggest that the English philosopher Francis Bacon identified the backfire effect more than four centuries ago in his Aphorism XLVI:

“The human understanding when it has once adopted an opinion (either as being the received opinion or as being agreeable to itself) 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 conclusions may remain inviolate.”

It’s a slightly less highbrow explanation, but if you’ve ever argued politics with Uncle Bob or your benighted little brother at a family dinner, you may know the backfire effect. Lay all the facts you want on them. Call up your counterargument on your iPhone and show them, and you’ve accomplished nothing.

They still believe and are even more adamant about that nonsense that you’ve proven wrong.

The good news is that this is a natural bias. They can hardly help it. They can, but it’s not unusual that they won’t.

And by “good news,” I mean for how you feel about your family. For society — or conversions on a site plagued by negative news — well, not so much.

Multiple studies find the same results. Worse, people who are “highly knowledgeable” may be more likely to cling to the most outlandish false beliefs.

And, to maintain their beliefs, people are likely to:

  • Engage in a biased search process, i.e., look for information that supports their preconceptions and avoid anything counter to what they believe, and
  • Generate their own counterarguments against any new information that contradicts their beliefs.

So if somehow your business has picked up a bad reputation that is undeserved, you have a problem that could be costly to fix.

You may remember a story about Wendy’s from about a decade ago, in which a woman claimed to have found a piece of a human finger in her Wendy's chili. This hoax began in 2005, but it wasn’t until 2013 that the perpetrator came clean and went to jail, despite Wendy’s efforts to investigate and counter the claim.

That phony story cost Wendy’s as much as $21 million in lost business, according to some estimates.

Wendy’s is only one of several large corporations damaged by false accusations. Who knows how many smaller companies have been hurt in the same way without the benefit of deep pockets to help them fight back?

And, again, fighting back can make things worse. Some people who encounter facts that run counter to their beliefs may actually see the new information as supporting what they already think.

Others simply decide that they and you — the bearer of contrary views — don’t have all of the facts. This “communal reinforcement” relies on a perceived community of believers who know more about the matter than they do, professional skeptic Robert T. Carroll, Ph.D., explains. The person you reach may not be able to explain their (false) thinking, but they know others can.

This makes it easier for them to believe.

Repetition, especially in the news media or on social media, gives ideas and information more weight, too.

And, as Carroll says, “The more ideological and the more emotion-based a belief is, the more likely it is that contrary evidence will be ineffective.”

You can’t win.

Except that you can. Though it may be as tough as saying “Kobayashi Maru.”

i don't believe in no-win scenarios(Image source)

The same things that can help to etch a misgiven belief into stone for a believer can also help you crush it. By which I mean the aforementioned:

  • Emotion
  • Facts.

When Emotional Responses Are Appropriate

We are emotional beings. We are also rational beings. Have you seen the commercial where the guy buys the ’Vette and drives it home to his pregnant wife and daughter? He loves the sports car, but then he realizes he needs a practical family car, so he returns the Corvette.

CarMax TV Spot, 'The Bright Side of Car Buying: Worry Free' - 2016-02-11 13-18-07

(Video source)

Unfortunately, our emotions do kick in faster than our intellect.

What happens next, explains political scientist Charles Taber of Stony Brook University in a Mother Jones article, “is a subconscious negative response to the new information — and that response, in turn, guides the type of memories and associations formed in the conscious mind.”

“(People) retrieve thoughts that are consistent with their previous beliefs,” Taber says, “and that will lead them to build an argument and challenge what they're hearing.”

We are also vulnerable to our propensity for "confirmation bias," in which we give greater heed to evidence and arguments that fit our preconceived notions, and "disconfirmation bias," in which we work harder mentally to debunk or refute views and arguments that we don’t like.

The MJ author advises that if you want someone to accept new evidence, present it to them in a context that doesn't trigger an emotional reaction.

But, the thing is, emotion works in marketing. Emotion works very well.

In Brand Immortality by Hamish Pringle and Peter Field, the authors examined 1,400 case studies of successful advertising campaigns submitted for the UK-based Institute of Practitioners in Advertising Effectiveness Award competition over the last 30 years. They compared the profitability boost of campaigns that relied primarily on emotional appeal vs. ads based on rational persuasion and information. The chart below, from their book, shows the results.

Campaign effectiveness, emotional vs rational

Campaigns with purely emotional content performed about twice as well as those with only rational content. Ads that were purely emotional did a little better than ads that mixed emotional and rational content.

As Roger Dooley explains, an emotional marketing campaign may be more effective, but Pringle and Field point out that touching consumers emotionally isn’t as easy as basing ads and/or other content on straight-forward facts. Emotions can get messy.

“Indeed, brands have damaged themselves when an emotional campaign failed to align with reality,” Dooley says.

“Pringle and Field suggest that committing to an emotional branding approach be ‘hard-wired into the fabric of the brand,’ which requires a major commitment as well as good understanding of consumer motivation.”

Understand Your Customer.

If you’ve ever read my blog before, you’ve read this before: you have to understand who your customers are and what motivates them.

How can you possibly appeal to your customers’ emotions unless you know who your customers are and what they want?

To quote, well, me in a previous article that goes much further in depth —

Here’s how you identify your audience’s strongest emotions:

  • Describe your audience demographic, e.g., female, ages 50-70, etc.
  • Describe your product, e.g., hair coloring, hair extensions, etc.
  • Describe the strongest emotional motivations that might inspire a purchase, e.g., fear, embarrassment, youthful vitality, happiness, romance, conceit, etc. If these emotions are nameless, then describe the feeling that someone might experience — their words, thoughts, attitudes, etc.

You may be familiar with Plutchik's Wheel of Emotions (at right below), which postulates the concept that our feelings grow from eight basic emotions: joy, trust, fear, surprise, sadness, anticipation, anger and disgust.

Plutchik's Wheel of EmotionsWell, if that’s too complex for you, researchers from the Institute of Neuroscience and Psychology at the University of Glasgow say there are really only four basic emotions: happy, sad, afraid/surprised and angry/disgusted. All others grow out of them through social requirements.

Of course, that’s an oversimplification, but the point is that you should work to make your customers feel happy (or a variation at the top of Plutchik’s wheel) or surprised (amazed, awed).

Move customers away from sad, angry/disgusted and related emotions by showing how your product or service will fulfill their needs or eliminate the cause of their pain.

Charge your materials with emotion through the proper use of:

How Do We Feel About Emotions?

Yes, emotion-packed marketing works if it is done right. Psychology Today says:

Emotions are the primary reason why consumers prefer brand-name products. After all, many of the products we buy are available as generic and store brands with the same ingredients and at cheaper prices. Why do we decide to pay more for brand-name products?

A brand is nothing more than a mental representation of a product in the consumer’s mind. ... The richer the emotional content of a brand’s mental representation, the more likely the consumer will be a loyal user.

Even if you buy it just because you “like it,” that’s your emotions driving the decision train.

One of the most often-cited campaigns that plays purely on emotion is the series of Budweiser commercials featuring their famous Clydesdales. They typically debut during the Super Bowl.

An ad from 2008 featured a Dalmatian buddying up with a horse that wasn’t chosen for the Budweiser team. They work out, to the theme from Rocky, no less, and one year later, well, you know.

In 2002, the Clydesdales were trotted out for a 9/11 tribute.

Not one word, not one image about beer. But you remember these commercials. You may have even clicked through just now to watch them. You probably said, “Awww …”

This works for Budweiser because it is a well-known brand, Pringle and Field point out (and Bud has used the Clydesdales in ads since 1967). A lesser-known company might only leave viewers puzzled by an ad that said nothing about the product.

Still, emotion is a bedrock of advertising.

Here’s a roundup of 15 uses of emotional marketing. They’re all a play on happiness/amazement/awe. The list ranges from Apple (celebration) and Canon (wonder), through Lego (imagination, creation) and Nike (success), to UPS (joy) and Volkswagen (perfectionism. Oops; it’s an old ad).

And, just for good measure, there’s the real estate company Zillow and its “Find Your Way Home” campaign. This Zillow ad chronicles the story of a couple traveling abroad to adopt a child while simultaneously searching for a home for their expanding family. Says the company, “Finding and creating a home is more than just buying a house – it's an emotional journey that touches everyone in a family.”

“Smaller brands may not be able to follow the same emotional branding approach as the market leaders,” Dooley says, quoting Pringle and Field, “but may be able to segment the market to find a group of consumers that will respond to a different appeal.”

Again, know your customers, even small segments of them, and you can target them with emotion-laden campaigns to persuade them.

You don't lead with the facts in order to convince, Mother Jones says. “You lead with the values — so as to give the facts a fighting chance.”

Take Charge of Your Story - How To Avoid The Backfire Effect

Nyhan and Reifler quote additional research stating that individuals who are “confronted with information of sufficient quantity or clarity” should eventually give in and accept a conclusion that doesn’t necessarily match their prior view or beliefs.

Further, they say, “as a certain belief becomes widely viewed as discredited among the public and the press, individuals who might be ideologically sympathetic to that belief will be more likely to abandon it when exposed to corrective information.”

In other words, the facts can eventually change minds, even biased minds.

In their guide, The Debunking Handbook, John Cook and Stephan Lewandowsky say successfully correcting false information requires:

  • Core facts: Emphasize the facts, not the myth.
  • Explicit warnings: Before you bring up the incorrect information, use text or visual cues to indicate that the upcoming information is false.
  • Alternative explanation: Fill the gap left by removing false information from the audience’s mind. This could be an explanation of why the information is wrong or any motivation behind the false narrative.
  • Graphics: Use images to portray your core facts, if possible.

Here, from the handbook, Cook and Lewandowsky debunk the myth that because 31,000 scientists signed a petition stating there is no evidence that human activity can disrupt climate, there is no scientific consensus about man-made global warming:

graph of expert who agree with global warming

Another extremely effective way to convey ideas and facts is through narrative transportation. Tell your users a story that takes them away.

You watch 60 Minutes, right? It’s still a ratings topper 45-plus years in. Its creator, the late Don Hewitt, had a simple secret to producing the show’s gripping reports week after week, year after year.60 min logo

“Tell me a story,” was Hewitt’s famous instruction.

He was so right. People are wired to follow and embrace stories.

Think about religion. Any religion. Its values are illustrated and spread through stories.

Tell your story to counter a false narrative. Make it a great story. Tell it with text, images and/or video. Stories can be told as:

  • Company history
  • Owner / employee biographies
  • Customer testimonials
  • Answers to Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
  • Day-in-the-life stories featuring your product or service
  • How-to stories
  • Success stories, especially clients’ successes
  • Stories that reflect company values.

Emotion drives the effectiveness of narrative. But there’s a physical factor, too.

Stories work because of our so-called “mirror neurons.” They are “the neurobiological roots of human empathy, an evolutionary development that allows species with such powers to learn from each other without having to recreate every experience for themselves,” the Institute for Public Relations says in its behavioral communications research series.

Uri Hasson, assistant professor at the Princeton Neuroscience Institute, tracked the brain patterns of storytellers and listeners. He found that, after a momentary delay, the listener’s brain patterns matched the storyteller’s. After a little while, the listener’s brain mirrored the storyteller’s with no delay.

Eventually, “the listener’s brain started accurately mirroring the teller’s brain before the teller got to that part of the story.”

Hasson and his colleagues call this “neural coupling.”

Imaging the neural activity of a speaker–listener pair during storytelling

Humans are wired to mirror thoughts, emotions and whole narratives.

Further, Raymond Mar, a psychologist at York University in Toronto, Canada, says people’s brain patterns indicate that as we read text, our brains simulate the real-world aspects triggered by the text. We can hear, smell, feel and even mimic motion.

“The more people are transported into the world of a narrative, the more they feel immersed in a story, the more likely they are to change their beliefs to be more consistent with those expressed in the world of narrative,” Mar says.

This works equally as well with text that relates fact or fiction.

Melanie C. Green is a professor of social psychology and communications, and a breakthrough researcher on narrative transportation (or transport). She says individuals often base real-world judgments on information from fiction, according to the IPR.

“Humans are practiced at creating possible worlds, and when confronted with a fictional situation, individuals appear to be basing their judgments on plausibility rather than accuracy,” Green wrote.

“Green, like Mar, said her research reveals that while an expository or evidentiary approach to persuasion may fall prey to the backfire effect, the power of transporting people through narrative can succeed.”

At an Ogilvy PR session during the Global PR Summit 2013, Green said the power of narrative transport comes through the reader stepping into the lives of the narrative’s characters.

“It’s being immersive, it’s being enjoyable. We’re not being critical, we’re not counter-arguing. So those kinds of things can break down some of the initial barrier that we’re going to have to being persuaded.

“But what it can also do once we’re in that narrative world is create those connections that are so important. … We’re taking the perspective of these people, and the empathy that it creates goes out and we carry it beyond just those few moments when we were thinking about the story.”

Tom Van Laer of the City University London and his colleagues developed a model for narrative transport:

Three necessary story characteristics:

  • Identifiable characters
  • An imaginable plot
  • Use of realism.

Three audience characteristics:

  • Familiarity (with the topic)
  • Attention (focus on the story)
  • Transportability (ability to fantasize).

To this model, I would add Pitch Anything author Oren Klaff’s admonition that you have to use language that your audience knows well enough that they can convey your story to others. That is, avoid jargon and technical language in most cases.

Additionally, Van Laer, et al. found demographic characteristics that lend themselves to narrative transport. Narrative transportation may be more pronounced for younger than older story-receivers. Better educated readers are likely to read more and thus be better at making inferences. And women report significantly greater narrative transportation than men, according to the researchers.

Women read more, are more empathetic, and typically will generate more emotions in response to a story.

In summary: “The more story receivers (a) are familiar with a story topic, (b) pay attention to a story, (c) possess transportability, (d) are young, (e) are educated, and (f) are female, the more narrative transportation increases.”

‘Genius’ Example of Narrative Transport

“Meet Me at Starbucks” is a video produced by the coffee chain and YouTube. It chronicles friends and strangers interacting at Starbucks locations around the world, a familiar, realistic and relatable scenario.

Meet Me at Starbucks cover image

We’re transported as we instantly recognize and connect with Starbucks customers acting much as we might while hanging out at the coffee shop with friends.


AdWeek, which named “Meet Me at Starbucks” among the year’s best campaigns, says it has raked in more than 26,000 hours of watched footage, 91 million social media impressions and news coverage internationally.

“People around the world ended up forming emotional connections with the content and began reflecting on their own stories through social media,” AdWeek says of the Starbucks video. “The stories — ranging from friendship to romance to family — inspired others to meet and document future stories at their own Starbucks.”

That, my friends, is golden.


I can hear the “yeah, buts.”

Yeah, but creating emotion, writing stories, recording video, etc., is hard work, even with the facts to guide you.

But it’s important work if someone has said, written or posted something negative about your business. You need to work fast to counter the fallout, which is potentially fatal to your business. And just saying “not true, not true” will trigger the backfire effect.

Bring your alienated customers back to you by moving them emotionally.


Jeremy Smith

Digital marketer with a penchant for dance; helping clients see the light through the jungle of tweets since before Twitter was cool.