LeBron, Jordan, and The Backfire Effect

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My neighbor, a fellow sports nut, peered at me with a look that combined equal measures of disgust and incomprehension.


“At the end of LeBron James’ career, even if he has more championship rings, more MVP awards, wins more games, scores more points, grabs more rebounds, and dishes out more assists than Michael Jordan . . . even then, you will not consider LeBron better than MJ. Is that correct?”


“Yes,” I confirmed. “Here’s why: Jordan was 6-0 in the NBA Finals and was the MVP in every one. LeBron will have lost at least five Finals—five!— by the time he’s done!” I exclaimed, accidentally launching my drink into the air, landing with a splat on my friend’s deck.


“So, regardless of any hypothetical future evidence to the contrary,” my friend countered, “by cherry-picking the one stat LeBron cannot obtain, MJ will always be better.”





Humans are irrational.


Whether we are arguing about hypothetical sports scenarios or facts with verifiable source material, humans often struggle with changing their minds in light of new evidence.


In helping clients improve safety, productivity, retention, and sales through communication and cultural understanding, I have witnessed an interesting phenomenon: providing more evidence in an effort to change someone’s belief often made them less likely to believe it. 


There is a name for this: The Backfire Effect.


The Backfire Effect posits that when your deepest beliefs are challenged by contradictory information or evidence, your beliefs become stronger. 


This poses a frightening question: Could your leadership efforts be making things worse?


As we strive to change the thoughts and behaviors of those around us to align with our goals, how can we do so without inadvertently inciting The Backfire Effect? 


Here are 4 ways.


ONE: Increase awareness.
I first learned of The Backfire Effect from this wonderful cartoon from The Oatmeal. By simply understanding the existence of The Backfire Effect, it will help you identify it in others—and yourself.

For a deeper dive, there are a trio of 30-minute episodes on The Backfire Effect at the You Are Not So Smart podcast. They are excellent.


TWO: Avoid (or sandwich) the myth.
John Cook and Stephan Lewandowsky published the paper, The Debunking Handbook, a how-to guide to overcoming The Backfire Effect.


Their first recommendation is to avoid the myth altogether. Don’t state the myth you are trying to debunk. Certainly don’t use it as a title on a power point slide. If impossible to avoid, strategically sandwich the myth in between core facts and an explanation of how the myth misleads people into believing it.


THREE: Don’t use every bullet in the chamber. 
Don’t overdo it. If you have six reasons Argument X is a fallacy, force-rank them in order of impact and select the top three. Piling on more evidence can trigger The Backfire Effect.



FOUR: Use graphics.
Cook and Lewandowsky recommend using graphics to display the core facts. They are easier to remember than facts alone.


Beliefs that form part of our identity—cultural, political or religious, for example—are more likely to trigger The Backfire Effect.


Convincing someone The Great Wall of China is actually not visible from space (It’s long, but less than 20 feet wide) will be easier to debunk than, say, your impromptu legal research supporting your belief (in either direction) in Donald Trump and a potential obstruction of justice charge.


However, look for The Backfire Effect in less obvious situations. While your recommendation for a small modification to a job site process may seem benign to you, there may be a corporate cultural impact (We’ve always done it this way! This is part of our differentiation!) that triggers The Backfire Effect among your peers.


Could your 88-page slide deck, bursting with supporting data, be causing your colleagues to strengthen their existing beliefs? 

Could the resistance to your idea be the result of The Backfire Effect?


My neighbor and I don’t talk basketball anymore. 
We’ve been debating football ever since I shared my firm belief that, despite scoring 54 fewer touchdowns and rushing for 1,629 fewer yards than Emmitt Smith, Walter Payton of the Chicago Bears is the greatest running back of all time.


I’ve been doing research, building my argument.

I think I can change his mind.

Categories: Jobsite Leadership

1 reply

  1. Glad you’re back. Great post!

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