The Debunking Handbook, Part 2: The Familiarity Backfire Effect

The Debunking Handbook is a guide to debunking myths, by John Cook and Stephan Lewandowsky. It boils down the research on the psychological research on misinformation into a short, simple summary.

This is part two of a five-part series cross-posted from Skeptical Science.

To debunk a myth, you often have to mention it — otherwise, how will people know what you’re talking about? However, this makes people more familiar with the myth and hence more likely to accept it as true. Does this mean debunking a myth might actually reinforce it in people’s minds?

To test for this backfire effect, people were shown a flyer that debunked common myths about flu vaccines.1 Afterwards, they were asked to separate the myths from the facts. When asked immediately after reading the flyer, people successfully identified the myths. However, when queried 30 minutes after reading the flyer, some people actually scored worse after reading the flyer. The debunking reinforced the myths.

Hence the backfire effect is real. The driving force is the fact that familiarity increases the chances of accepting information as true. Immediately after reading the flyer, people remembered the details that debunked the myth and successfully identified the myths. As time passed, however,  the memory of the details faded and all people remembered was the myth without the “tag” that identified it as false. This effect is particularly strong in older adults because their memories are more vulnerable to forgetting of details.

How does one avoid causing the Familiarity Backfire Effect? Ideally, avoid mentioning the myth altogether while correcting it. When seeking to counter misinformation, the best approach is to focus on the facts you wish to communicate.

Not mentioning the myth is sometimes not a practical option. In this case, the emphasis of the debunking should be on the facts. The often-seen technique of headlining your debunking with the myth in big, bold letters is the last thing you want to do. Instead, communicate your core fact in the headline. Your debunking should begin with emphasis on the facts, not the myth. Your goal is to increase people’s familiarity with the facts.

The Debunking Handbook, a guide to debunking misinformation, is now freely available to download.


  1. Skurnik, I., Yoon, C., Park, D., & Schwarz, N. (2005). How warnings about false claims become recommendations. Journal of Consumer Research, 31, 713-724.

11 Responses to The Debunking Handbook, Part 2: The Familiarity Backfire Effect

  1. Raul M. says:

    Talking about what we do think.
    That is a good idea .
    Keep in mind what the goal should be.
    Certainly, the idea of facts should play a part and what facts are deciding to the goal and courses of action.

  2. Bill Goedecke says:

    It is best to understand that people are not just passive cognitive machines, but are active agents in the reconstruction of internalized and embodied socially constructed beliefs. People acquire belief through a process of socialization that occurs in the family and in the social environment in which they were raised. Through these early experiences, and within the continued life in the social class of people in which they belong, these beliefs are reinforced through common experience and agreement. Through the identification with theses socially constructed beliefs the individual becomes an active agent who reconstructs these beliefs in their field of their activity.

    The dispersion of facts regarding physical conditions such as climate comes from an intellectual class of people. To introduce facts to the population without understanding both the unconscious and mechanical process of belief and the active participation of the individual in this reconstruction of belief is to participate in an exercise of idealism (an idealism which has no impact). If the myth to be debunked reflects the dominant belief then not mentioning it will not activate the unconscious identification with that myth. But I don’t know if it would really make a difference, since that myth could be part and parcel of the way of life the individual inhabits. To effect change either the conscious awareness of the individual has to be elevated (meaning, having a way of life where one is conditioned to be reflective and self-critical in which case information would be relevant) or to have that way of life be completely destroyed.

  3. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Bill, your choices for effecting change are not the only ones. Please see my comment on Debunking Part I from yesterday. Beliefs can change without even having an argument, ME

  4. John Tucker says:

    “just the facts”

    Id avoid the myth altogether, other than ridiculing it for its ridiculousness and introduce the facts as related to whatever decision or new information is at hand.

  5. John Tucker says:

    After all its either a myth or reasoned truth. Myth is both characterizable as a sustained Cognitive Dissonance and a reference to historic beliefs.

    Plopping in a disjointed abstract scientific reference or a popularized argument isn’t going to “cure” it, if it relies on the same lose process of faith and belief. Correct?

  6. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    The enforcement of ‘..internalized and embodied socially constructed beliefs’ is the job of the propaganda system. It has two main branches, the MSM, and advertising, both nearly totally controlled by the money power of Big Business.
    The MSM operates, as Chomsky and Herman and others have shown, and as commonsense dictates, as a brainwashing system to indoctrinate the rabble into the eternal verities of really existing market capitalism. We know them all- greed is good (or God-same root), life is about competition, not co-operation, every man is for himself and the Devil take the hindmost etc. Greedy, atomised, anomic individualism as the highest expression of humanity. Every effort is made to drum this reality into our heads, disguised as ‘news’ or ‘opinion’. The advertising pathocracy joins in the fray by operating at the psychological level, twisting our desires, hopes, fears and sense of inadequacy to the Holy Work of consumption.
    So well brainwashed have most of us been that we cannot accept dreadful truths like environmental collapse. The easiest way out, one facilitated by billions of money invested by the denialist industry to protect their wealth at any cost, is simply to deny it all. Or ignore it all. Or abuse those not so well indoctrinated, who threaten your plasma TVs and 4WDs (SUVs). By the time that brute, undeniable, reality has broken through the carapace of greed, willfull ignorance and stupidity, it will be way too late. In fact it probably already is, and we are nowhere near seeing the dull, popular mass wakening. In fact they seem to be developing narcolepsy.

  7. Bill Goedecke says:

    Ok, I looked at something called searchconference – it looks like something that people do in order to open their minds to change, which is really what I mean that the consciousness of the individual would be elevated. For people to effectively communicate in groups, one has to be self-critical and reflective. It has been my experience that there are always bumps in the road when communicating in a group and that there has to be some method for catching people when they are speaking in an unconscious matter – don’t you think? What I think ‘open’ means is not having an agenda, but to be open to new possibilities. So I guess I don’t know what you were saying in your comment, since I did not suggest an argument is required. I applaud the searchconference method for introducing active participation. But one always has to be aware of the tendency to revert to old forms. I was responding specifically to the article which talked about providing ‘facts’ to people, which is a little stilted, since it does not suggest participation.

  8. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Thanks Bill. The Search Conference is for planning and making sure the most desirable future of the community or organization actually happens. It puts the responsibility back where it should be, with the people who have to live with the consequences of the plan. It’s people working together as groups of equals around an agreed set of goals.

    Openness is one of Asch’s conditions of influential communication and in practice means openness in all things, information, perceptions, public group reports (no individual notes) etc.

    Under these conditions, people communicate freely and cooperatively, not through filters such as ‘them and us’.

    My point about argument is that people often come believing others will have different views and they will have to fight for theirs but soon realize they have heaps in common and can easily negotiate differences if not forget them altogether. People can plan and implement radical changes for a sustainable future without even arguing about climate change but they leave with very different views from those they arrived with, ME

  9. Bill Goedecke says:

    Sounds pretty positive. Thanks for sharing information regarding.

  10. Geoff Beacon says:

    I wish another example other than vaccination had been used. The MMR controversy is still in my mind.

    While Dr Wakefield was probably wrong, I got the impression that the medical establishment went after him and concocted all sorts of material that suppressed the questions rather than answered them. Perhaps they too were worried about the psychological rebound effect.

    I also have, what I consider to be more substantial reasons for distrusting the medical establishment and, if I were confronted with the “vaccination test” as described above, I think I would initially have agreed that “the myth was debunked” but after some time my distrust would have reasserted itself. “OK, they said that but I still don’t trust them”. (But I do get vaccinated from time to time.)

    Perhaps there is no complete remedy but it would help me if the questions were addressed more explicitly. For years now I have been asking top rank climate scientists if Arctic methane is a problem and they have given me assurances that it was no big deal. That briefly convinced me that I was panicking. But give it a week or so and a psychological backfire effect kicks in and I trust the scientists a bit less. I still worry about methane coming out of the Arctic.

    Stupid or what?

    P.S. I still worry also worry about the silence (in the UK at least) on the other rebound/backfire effect: insulate houses and householders can use even more energy for heating.

  11. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Wakefield was crucified by the medical establishment and the MSM, two pillars of Rightwing social control. There was no attempt to investigate his theories or treat his opinions with respect, just a witch-hunt to drive out deviant thought. I have worked in hospitals for years, and seen medical groupthink over and over again deliver nothing but ignorance, suffering and pain to people. I’ve seen dying people suffering intractable pain, while the ‘palliative care’ establishment denies that such pain exists, and the medical establishment as a whole vehemently opposes euthanasia when vast majorities of the public support it. Vaccination is a two-edged sword, one that does represent real risks and real advantages, but, as ever, the establishment demands groupthink and unquestioning acquiecense. It is one of the roots of climate destabilisation denialism, the numerous occasions on which vested ‘scientific’ interests have dudded the community and treated them like dolts. Now it has come back to bite us all on the bum, in the distrust of actually vital, truthful and disinterested, climate science.