Friday 20 October 2017

The School Research Lead and the 'backfire effect' - should you be worried?

One of the challenges faced by school research leads is the need to engage with colleagues who have different views about the role of evidence in bringing about improvement.  Indeed, these different views are not likely to be restricted just to the role of evidence, they are also likely to include differing views about the research evidence itself.  What’s more in a widely cited article (Nyhan & Reifler, 2010) show how  attempts to  correct misconceptions through the use of evidence frequently fail to to reduce the misconceptions held by a target-group.  Indeed, these attempts at correcting misconceptions may inadvertently lead to increasing misconceptions in the target-group i.e the so-called back-effect

Now if there is a ‘backfire effect this could have profound implications for both evidence-based school leaders and school research leads as they attempt to engage in dialogue to correct the misconceptions which may be held by colleagues about research.   This is extremely important as it is necessary to know whether it is possible to engage in constructive dialogue where misperceptions can be corrected.   If this is not the case then school research leads will need to give careful consideration to how they go about disseminating scholarly research, as it may lead to major opinion formers within a school having an even less favourable view of research as a means of bringing about improvement.

However, there may be an even bigger issue -  the ‘backfire effect’ may not exist at all, and even if it does it may well be the exception rather than the norm.  In a peer-reviewed paper, (Wood & Porter, 2016) present results from four experiments involving over 8000 subjects, and found that on the whole individuals tended to take on board factual information even if this information challenges their partisan and ideological commitments. 

What are the implications for you, as you attempt to develop a school climate and culture based of evidence use.  

First, as (Wood & Porter, 2016) noted the back-fire effect appeared to be a product of question wording, so this would suggest that it’s important to really think through how information is presented to colleagues and how subsequent questions are phrased.  

Second, Wood and Porter note that in general respondents tend to shy away from cognitive effort and will deploy strategies to avoid it.  Whereas as the backfire effect relies on substantial cognitive effort by developing new considerations to offset the cognitive dissonance generated by the new information.    However, the research which has identified the back-fire effect often took place in university settings where the respondents, be it students or teaching staff often take great delight in cognitive effort.  Indeed, the school staff room may have a number of similarities with experiments taking place in university settings.  As such, schools may be particularly prone to seeing a disproportionate number of incidents to the ‘back-fire effect.  

Third, Wood and Porter note that their findings are not without limitations, for example, just because individuals have been presented with information to address their misconceptions, does not mean that that this information has been retained.    

And finally, it’s important to note that even when relatively new ideas and concepts breakout from the academy and reach the public domain, that does not mean they should be taken as ‘gospel’ but rather should be seen as something which has more than surface plausibility.  That said, even when things are plausible that does not mean it is the only explanation for what is taking place.


Nyhan, B., & Reifler, J. (2010). When corrections fail: The persistence of political misperceptions. Political Behavior, 32(2), 303-330.

Wood, T., & Porter, E. (2016). The elusive backfire effect: Mass attitudes' steadfast factual adherence.


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