The Backfire Effect

car backfiring closeup of exhaust

By MJ Ali

I think it’s safe to say we’ve all seen an increase in reactive communication among our fellow humans, and maybe even in ourselves. Environmental stress, isolation, uncertainty, polarizing attitudes and beliefs and many other factors are contributing to a very tense concoction of human behavior.


Today, I was thinking about this when confronted with two “truths” vehemently defended by people who believe with 500% certainty that their “truth” is THE truth, and found myself having the same reaction I have since things got turned upside down earlier this year. The ongoing spitting contest on conspiracy theories and “the real truth” is its own fanged beast into which people are pouring vast amounts of venomous energy to defend the truth they choose.

For those of us trying to maintain balance, getting hit with polarizing stances can feel like bullying, a challenge to react. It’s an added stress I don’t welcome.


Both sides, and the behaviors exhibited, all look and sound the same, because the energy is the same. It has the same polarizing, rigid, and sometimes even vicious vibration. Somewhere in between those two polarizing stances is a relatively sane balance. Because, where humans are concerned, the certainty of truth is woven within our own comfortable camps. And that means there are usually going to be at least two truths that cancel each other out. Sound insane? Indeed!


We usually know when we’ve arrived at a truth that stands on its own because it doesn’t fit completely into anyone’s camp. So accepting that truth means that everyone will need to embrace some uncomfortable aspects of that truth. Growth doesn’t happen without discomfort.

Of course, this polarizing behavior isn’t new. It’s just amplified. Maybe that’s the real gift of 2020 in all this chaos. Maybe it really will live up to its name: to help us see more clearly.


In the meantime, I want to share some stuff I think some might find inspiring, thought-provoking, or at the very least mildly entertaining. The first is a comic-style infographic I found years ago and have kept the link because I think it’s brilliantly presented, thought-provoking and humorous (I love that combo).

NOTE: there are two links below to the same piece: the first is the regular version, and the second is the classroom-friendly version (no swear words).

You’re not going to believe what I’m about to tell you. (Regular version, contains profanity)

You’re not going to believe what I’m about to tell you. (Classroom-friendly version, no foul language)

At the end of this piece, the author cites the sources, as well as links to confirmation bias and the backfire effect, a series on which this comic infographic is based, and lots of other edutaining articles and podcasts.

Dr. Rick Hanson’s Being Well Podcast has a great interview with Dr. Stephen Porges, who proposed the Polyvagal Theory in 1994 that is very relevant today. The Polyvagal Theory “links the evolution of the nervous system to social behavior and emphasizes the importance of physiological states in our psychological experiences.”


I wish you all as much safety, sanity and balance as you can handle.

Spread the word. Share this post!