Do You Have the Courage to Doubt?

Do you have the courage to question your own understanding of the world, doubting a cherished belief that may not be supported by evidence? Would you be a better leader, team member and citizen if you did? Researcher Brendan Nyhan seems to have this kind of courage.


Nyhan was one of the researchers whose work evolved into the popular backfire effect, a widely reported behavior where once a person forms a belief, then offering objective evidence to the contrary causes the person to dig in their heels and defend the belief even more firmly. Now, Nyhan is considering new research that may refute the backfire effect.

The newer research considered claims regarding violent crime bantered about during the 2016 Presidential election and people’s perception/beliefs. Providing corrective information reportedly led people to adjust their opinion about their original belief on crime trends – but not necessarily related beliefs; for example, their support for a particular candidate who may have promoted non-factual claims. So while people may agree that the facts upon which they placed their belief need to be adjusted, they don’t necessarily adjust their larger position/support.

Here’s the interesting part for me.  When faced with the new information on the backfire effect, Nyhan didn’t dig in his heels to defend his original idea but opened up to challenge his views in order to help advance research on this topic. Nyhan notes that science requires constant doubt and challenge.

I have referenced the backfire effect often since first learning about it, noting the underlying research, and reflecting on how I’ve witnessed the effect in groups. I’ve also acknowledged the effect in my own behavior – often reluctantly with the help of friends and family who brought my behavior to my attention. So maybe I was just seeing what I expected to see, but the backfire effect does seem to still apply to one’s “high level” position even when one is willing to adjust specific belief in non-factual claims.

Regardless what the new research reveals, the key take-away for me is how Nyhan’s courage to doubt is a valuable reminder to regularly check assumptions and beliefs and to be open to new discoveries and meaning.

Now what do we do with all the books on all the shelves and in all the e-readers that promote the original concept of the backfire effect?

Click on the following link to listen to an interview with Nyhan –

graphic by Lbeaumont – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

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