How to beat the 'backfire effect'?

January 25, 2019 13:17
A file picture shows people waiting at the A&E wing of Queen Elizabeth Hospital. Despite growing concerns about winter flu, many people aren't convinced about the need for special vaccine shots. Photo: CNSA

With temperatures dipping, seasonal influenza has become a major topic of discussion in Hong Kong in recent weeks.

While concerns grow over rising winter flu cases, we've seen studies in different countries that suggest that many people are often still unwilling to get vaccinated for influenza despite having received information about the virus threat.

Some communications scholars have referred to this phenomenon as the "backfire effect”.

According to their explanation, the more the people learn about the facts of flu vaccination, the more convinced they have become that they don't need to get vaccinated.

As academics have pointed out, the “backfire effect” is posing a huge challenge to public education: in the “post-truth era”, the more information, evidence and figures are available to the public, the more likely that they could bring the opposite effect.

Essentially, the problem is that people tend to resist accepting evidence that conflicts with their beliefs.

In Hong Kong, the recent controversies surrounding the statutory retirement age and the abortive adjustment of cross-harbor tunnel tolls proposed by the government make for examples of how the “backfire effect” prevails over reason and common sense.

For instance, even though most people would agree that nowadays, being aged 60 is not really that old or just considered “young-old”, people are still dismayed at the government’s decision to raise the age threshold of applicants for elderly Comprehensive Social Security Assistance Scheme.

That is because it is still difficult for many members of the public to feel comfortable about the idea that one still needs to find a job at the age of 60.

Likewise, motorists are overwhelmingly against the proposed toll adjustment at the Cross-Harbour Tunnel because, even though they are fully aware of the fact that it can save them a lot of time by paying HK$20 more, they are generally still feeling uneasy about having to pay 100 percent more to take the tunnel.

So is there any way we can beat the “backfire effect”?

Well, as a study conducted by the Duke University has suggested, if you want to debunk public misconceptions, a more effective way is to directly put forward the clarifications and avoid mentioning why there is the misconception, because people often have a tendency to remember wrong ideas more clearly than the content of clarifications.

Another way to cope with the backfire effect more effectively is to completely avoid citing scientific proof or a large amount of data, while supporting your argument by laying out a broader picture, along with solid and real-life examples.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Jan 24

Translation by Alan Lee with additional reporting

[Chinese version 中文版]

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HKEJ contributor