I’m sure each and every one of you has had occasion to get carried away and enter into a politically motivated discussion. The COVID crisis we have collectively gone through has created many opportunities for polarisation: lockdowns yes or no, vaccines yes or no, chloroquine yes or no etc. The arena in which many of these discussions have taken place has been the internet, social networks in particular.

When following the threads of social discussions, it seems that by bringing evidence for one thesis or another, people become more and more entrenched in their positions, even in the presence of elements such as rigorous research, scientific models, statistical data. Presenting this evidence seems only to produce even more hardening of the parties, and a reinforcement of the original beliefs, until, often, the discussion ends in mutual insults. This is the consequence of the ‘backfire effect’: just as with the ‘backfire’ from which it takes its name, this effect produces the reinforcement of a belief, which we feel is connected to our value system and therefore generates identity for us. So there is no point in bringing in objective facts and figures, research results, scientific theories, on the contrary. The deeper we go into the discussion, the more polarized it becomes, the more the fact of finding arguments and theses to support it reinforces the original opinion. Many of these arguments may not have been explored at the beginning of the discussion, but we discover them in the course of the exchange of ideas, and they comfort us in the position we are defending.

The expression ‘Backfire effect’ was invented by Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler in 2010 to explain the results of research into the effects of deliberately disseminated false political information and the fact that, even years later, and despite denials and the dissemination of true information, some of the public could not believe that it was not true.

The American journalist David McRaney runs a remarkably interesting and in-depth website on the subject of bias, youarenotsosmart.com, as well as having published several books on the subject. On his blog he has published a series of podcast interviews in which the two neuroscientists Jonas Kaplan and Sarah Gimpel talk about the biology of the backfire effect. The interesting discovery made through IRM is that the area involved in this effect is the amygdala, an area that is activated when we are in the presence of physical threats. What is particularly interesting is precisely that the brain does not differentiate between the danger of the threat that comes from having to reconsider certain beliefs, which are considered crucial for the construction of our identity, and physical threats. The hypothesis of the neuroscientists is that, since the backfire effect does not have the same intensity on all subjects, it seems to have it in particular on political subjects (e.g. the presence or not of weapons in Iraq for the Americans, or Obama’s religion…), on vaccines, on the defence of one’s political leaders when they have committed crimes. These opinions are decisive for whether we belong to a group; we therefore become so defensive because we are afraid of losing our bond of belonging to that group, and we know that from an evolutionary point of view this is one of the situations that our brain perceives as ‘high risk of survival’.

The additional information on these issues is also not absorbed in isolation, but becomes part of pre-existing networks of information and so “once you incorporate a piece of information into your worldview, changing it is not as simple as taking that little piece out; it’s already embedded in the foundation of what you have, and it might be, in some cases, like you’ve built a house, and maybe changing the door doesn’t take much effort, but if you want to change a load-bearing wall that’s part of the structure of the house, you have to start calling an architect to think about how to redesign your house, and you can’t just pull the piece out. “‘ (Jones & Kaplan 2013).

To come back to the online discussions, when we realize that for the other person (or for us) it is about such issues, we can stop bringing data, facts, research, theories, models. We are speaking a language, that of rationality and analysis, which is not suitable for communicating about a considerably basic functioning which is that of fight-or-fly, of threats to life, which is the functioning characteristic of the amygdala. Just as debunking sites are not useful, paradoxically especially when they are maintained by experts in the field, who risk being considered as elites to be defended against, especially when they mock those who think differently, which mainly serves to reinforce the ideas of those who are already convinced. The backfire effect works by reinforcing the opinions of both sides who, in defending their position, have in the meantime consolidated their neural connections around it. If the Net continues to develop in continuity with what has happened so far, the future that awaits us may not be very bright. Advertisements will be increasingly targeted according to the likes we have placed and generated based on what the algorithms have learned about us, how we vote, the beliefs we have, our values. Will the space still exist to disagree, to question, to change?

Can we free ourselves from the backfire effect and regenerate ourselves, our identity through the regeneration of our beliefs?

There are a few possibilities:

1.Simplify the explanations, taking advantage of the fact that the less effort the brain has to make to understand something new, the more likely it is to be believed. This is also why we created the card game INSIDIAE, about unconscious bias. One of our motivations was the realization that behavioral economics is particularly important and impactful in the lives of all of us, but too difficult to understand without having studied it in depth. Play allows us to get rid of our defences and makes learning possible, in an easy and fun way, without putting us in a threatening situation that could trigger the dynamic of fight-or-fly;

2.Present new information in a non-threatening way. We only have to go back to our famous comment threads on social networks to realize how violent communication styles, mocking, and devaluing the other person are dominant in discussions. Dialogue, starting with simple tools, starting with a real intention to understand, can help to open truly constructive and regenerative conversations for all parties involved. Soon to be published on this blog is our “Generative Speaking” tool;

3.When something is really far from our way of thinking rather than rejecting it immediately or comparing it with something we already know, we can breathe and make ourselves available to really enter a zone of “unknown”, “sans mémoire ni désir”. We can reach this state, which is not ‘natural’, by being aware of our thought processes and the risk of being imprisoned by our fears.