Backfire effects

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There is a gap between intention and effect. For some, intent is enough. If only we are pure enough of heart then all will be well. Realists like me, however, want to know about the effect. Yes, I understand that school children marching against climate change have virtuous intentions, but what do they actually want to achieve and how do they propose to achieve it?

This is an important point because good intentions are not enough. Sometimes, good intentions simple do not translate into a positive result. Worse, they can even backfire, exacerbating the problem.

I have been interested in backfire effects in education since I first heard about the Cambridge-Somerville youth study. In the early 1940s, a group of at-risk boys were assigned mentors. The boys were happy with the mentoring programme, but when compared with a control group of similar boys who had not participated in the programme, the criminal behaviour, health and work outcomes were worse for the mentored boys. The project may have reinforced negative behaviours by providing a kind of validation.

At the time, I compared this with the possible ‘Matthew effect‘ of differentiated instruction. We differentiate work for students with the best of intentions, but if we end up inadvertently setting lower expectations for less advanced students by, for example, asking students who struggle with writing to present their work in a different way, these students will never be able to catch-up with their peers. Instead, they need a targeted intervention.

In my recent post on teaching about racism, I wondered whether use of the term ‘white privilege’ might backfire for some white students. This is an emotive issue and I attracted some criticism, as well as some outright misrepresentation, simply for engaging in the subject as a white man. In contrast, few people commented on the backfire hypothesis and yet this was central to my point.

In a link on that post, Pendry, Driscoll and Field (2007) write about diversity training for adults and, in particular, a workshop known as ‘Walking Through White Privilege’:

“This exercise was developed by McIntosh (1988) to raise whites’ awareness of invisible privileges extended to them and denied to people of colour. Participants in the training session line up on one side of a room and respond to a number of statements (e.g., “I can easily find a doll for my child that represents his or her race”) by taking a pace forward if they agree (i.e., have the privilege)… Typically, there are some very strong negative feelings and thoughts expressed from those left behind (e.g., anger, tears, disbelief). Those on the other side of the room, predominantly whites, typically express the guilt that they feel about being privileged and/or anger at being blamed for privileges extended to them through no ‘fault’ of their own.

Hence, one can see that the exercise may not merely raise White awareness of privilege, thereby reducing negative inter-racial feelings. Instead, and as the established body of social psychological research noted above suggests, highlighting intergroup differences can backfire in terms of reducing positive intergroup feelings and behaviour (e.g., Gaertner, et al., 1993; Hewstone, 1996). For example, groups may become defensive and in doing so increase their cohesion by denigrating the outgroup (Tajfel & Turner, 1986).”

They go on to point out that some more recent research – bear in mind that this was 2007 – ‘qualifies the above gloomy conclusions’ before suggesting that any effect may depend on a person’s initial level of ‘white identification’, with a greater level being associated with more negative outcomes such as an increase in some forms of racism. Given the likely differences between adult participants in diversity training courses and cohorts of school kids, as well as the differing levels of expertise of teachers and trainers, this should at least make us pause for thought.

There has also been some discussion among proponents of evidence-based teaching practices about the possible backfire effect of ‘mythbusting’. This is the practice, common on Twitter and in blogs, of pointing to factual studies that contradict widely held beliefs among teachers, such as the belief that different students have different ‘learning styles‘. The claim is that mythbusting could potentially entrench views. However, there has been some more recent research  by Wood and Porter (2016) that has attempted to replicate some of the studies that this proposed backfire effect is based upon and the replications have been largely unsuccessful. As Wood and Porter state, “By and large, citizens heed factual information, even when such information challenges their ideological commitments,”

This perhaps leads to an interesting hypothesis.

It may be the case that interventions are more likely to backfire when we try to tinker in what psychologists term the ‘affective’ domain – students’ feelings and perceptions. If we stick to presenting factual information, including facts about the views and beliefs of others, and allow students the space to assimilate these for themselves, backfire may be less likely to occur.


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