The Elusive Backfire Effect: Mass Attitudes' Steadfast Factual Adherence

64 Pages Posted: 6 Aug 2016  

Thomas Wood

Ohio State University (OSU)

Ethan Porter

George Washington University

Date Written: August 5, 2016

Abstract

Can citizens heed factual information, even when such information challenges their partisan and ideological attachments? The “backfire effect,” described by Nyhan and Reifler (2010), says no: rather than simply ignoring factual information, presenting respondents with facts can compound their ignorance. In their study, conservatives presented with factual information about the absence of Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq became more convinced that such weapons had been found. The present paper presents results from four experiments in which we enrolled more than 8,100 subjects and tested 36 issues of potential backfire. Across all experiments, we found only one issue capable of triggering backfire: whether WMD were found in Iraq in 2003. Even this limited case was susceptible to a survey item effect; when presented with a less elaborate survey item, we found no WMD factual backfire. Comparably elaborate items were incapable of instilling backfire in questions other than WMD. Evidence of factual backfire is far more tenuous than prior research suggests. By and large, citizens heed factual information, even when such information challenges their partisan and ideological commitments.

Keywords: Factual Corrections, Public Opinion

Suggested Citation

Wood, Thomas and Porter, Ethan, The Elusive Backfire Effect: Mass Attitudes' Steadfast Factual Adherence (August 5, 2016). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2819073

Thomas Wood (Contact Author)

Ohio State University (OSU) ( email )

Blankenship Hall-2010
901 Woody Hayes Drive
Columbus, OH OH 43210
United States

Ethan Porter

George Washington University ( email )

2121 I Street NW
Washington, DC 20052
United States

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