Backfire effects after correcting misinformation are strongly associated with reliability

Briony Swire-Thompson, Nicholas Miklaucic, John Wihbey, David Lazer, Joseph DeGutis
PsyArXiv Preprints
July 12, 2021


The backfire effect is when a correction increases belief in the very misconception it is attempting to correct, and it is often used as a reason not to correct misinformation. The current study aimed to test whether correcting misinformation increases belief more than a no-correction control. Furthermore, we aimed to examine whether item-level differences in backfire rates were associated with test-retest reliability or theoretically meaningful factors. These factors included worldview-related attributes, namely perceived importance and strength of pre-correction belief, and familiarity-related attributes, namely perceived novelty and the illusory truth effect. In two nearly identical experiments, we conducted a longitudinal pre/post design with N = 388 and 532 participants. Participants rated 21 misinformation items and were assigned to a correction condition or test-retest control. We found that no items backfired more in the correction condition compared to test-retest control or initial belief ratings. Item backfire rates were strongly negatively correlated with item reliability (⍴ = -.61 / -.73) and did not correlate with worldview-related attributes. Familiarity-related attributes were significantly correlated with backfire rate, though they did not consistently account for unique variance beyond reliability. While there have been previous papers highlighting the non-replicable nature of backfire effects, the current findings provide a potential mechanism for this poor replicability. It is crucial for future research into backfire effects to use reliable measures, report the reliability of their measures, and take reliability into account in analyses. Furthermore, fact-checkers and communicators should not avoid giving corrective information due to backfire concerns.

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