Can't convince your colleagues about the value of evidence? You may be a victim of the backfire effect


One of the challenges faced by school research leads is the need to engage with colleagues who have different views about the role of evidence in bringing about improvement. In fact, it's not just the role of evidence that's likely to be debated – you might even face differing views about the evidence itself.

In 2010, two researchers – Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler, from the universities of Michigan and Georgia State respectively – looked at whether false beliefs about politics could be corrected. They suggest that attempts to correct misconceptions using evidence frequently fail. What's more, these attempts may inadvertently increase misconceptions within a target audience. This is called the "backfire effect".

This backfire effect could have profound implications for evidence-based school leaders and research leads. If you want to dispel myths and misconceptions about evidence with your colleagues, you really need to know whether it is possible to have a constructive dialogue where this could happen. If not, then school research leads will need to carefully consider how they share research, as it could lead to opinion-formers in a school having an even less favourable view of research than when they started.

Research from America in 2016, however, suggests that the backfire effect may be the exception rather than the rule – and may not exist at all. In a peer-reviewed paper, Thomas Wood and Ethan Porter present results from four experiments involving more than 8,000 subjects. They found that, on the whole, individuals tended to take on board factual information even if it challenged their partisan and ideological commitments.

So what can school research leads learn from these two papers when trying to develop a culture of evidence use?

Choose your words carefully

Wood and Porter found that the backfire effect appeared to be a product of question wording. This suggests it is important to really think through how information is presented to colleagues and how subsequent questions are phrased.

Be aware that schools may be prone to backfire effect

The backfire effect takes significant cognitive effort because respondents have to find new arguments, evidence and considerations to offset what they are hearing. Wood and Porter found that, in general, respondents tend to shy away from cognitive effort and will deploy strategies to avoid it.

That should be good news, however the research also identified that the backfire effect often took place in university settings where the respondents – be it students or teaching staff – take great delight in cognitive effort. The school staffroom may have a number of similarities with the university setting and as such, schools may see a disproportionate number of incidents of backfire. 

Bear in mind that the research has limitations

Wood and Porter openly discuss these. For example, they say just because individuals have been presented with information to address their misconceptions, does not mean this information has been retained.

It's important to remember that even when relatively new ideas and concepts break out from the academy and reach the public domain, that doesn't mean that they should be taken as gospel. Rather, they should be seen as something which has more than surface plausibility, which in itself does not mean they are the only explanation for what is taking place.

This is an edited version of a piece that originally ran on Gary Jones's blog, Evidence Based Educational Leadership.

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