The Backfire Effect

Recently in the news

  • You may find it puzzling that Republican voters are still backing Trump.
  • You may be amazed that the same voters do not believe that Russia interfered with the election, or that there is any connection to the Trump campaign.
  • In that case you must be shocked that the recent Donald Junior revelations have make their belief in ‘no collusion’ even stronger.[1]

But then again, is it that surprising? I previously discussed confirmation bias and desirability bias ( and but in this case feels like there is a different driver at work.

“Backfire effect”

This recent paper [2] found that “direct factual contradictions can actually strengthen ideologically grounded factual beliefs”. This is the “backfire effect”.

In contrast to what we saw previously:

Here we have:

The more evidence and the clearer the evidence against Trump, the more strongly his supporters believe him innocent. Trump supporters are not backing him because of facts or policies, this is about ideology and culture and it is a battle. Facts are irrelevant.

There are plenty of examples which demonstrate this. Tim Harford talks about how the tobacco industry managed to delay regulation for decades despite overwhelming evidence showing the link between smoking and cancer. [3] Another favourite example is what happens to cult members who believe that the world will end on a specific day. They give away their possessions and prepare for their ascension to heaven/alien spaceship. When the day arrives and nothing actually happens, they do not lose their faith; their faith in the end of the world actually increases. Perhaps the “backfire effect” also explains why Tony Blair’s support for the Iraq War became more fervent despite mounting evidence against the entire premise.

Back to Trump-gate

Given this, I fear that this ever-larger number of smoking guns will not help the Democrats much, even with increasing suggestions of criminal activity not just from the Trump campaign but from the Trump family itself. The way to defeat the Backfire effect is not to counter with ever more evidence. There was no possible evidence based argument that would have changed Blair’s mind about war.

The best approach is to build a compelling alternative narrative. Corbyn did this very successfully in the last election, making no attempt to defend himself against May’s attacks, focusing only on what he wanted to talk about. He did not change people’s minds about Trident, he stopped them thinking about it. What we focus on is far more important than the content of the debate.

Like all cognitive biases, spotting them in others is far easier than in oneself. We can all fall foul of the “backfire effect” when it comes to our most central values and beliefs. For business and investment, it has perhaps led to the most catastrophic of errors. The disasters of RBS, Lehman and Enron can be traced to core beliefs that proved successful at first, but then warning signs were ignored as the management became ever more evangelical in their confidence that their path was the right one.

When we are looking for investment analysis or advice, then we should be very wary of those with high and unchanging conviction. Some of the ones I regularly come across: the EU will break up/stick together or China will implode/ take over global dominance or the bond market will crash/inflation will never return. They argue passionately and eloquently (they are well practised) but are the ones most likely to be victims of the “backfire effect”. The element that makes them so popular as guru strategists and TV pundits makes them highly unreliable sources of investment advice.

Perhaps we should simply recognise that we may easily fall for this as individuals, but by building diverse enough teams and open enough culture, we may not fall for the same cognitive flaws.


As with confirmation bias and desirability bias, the “backfire effect” is important and can warp your interpretation of the world. Your political enemies and people you do not respect will not be the only victims of this. We can all fall prey to it and should be most sceptical of our views which are most closely linked to our core values and beliefs.





Fiscal transfers within a country

The ONS has calculated an estimate of the fiscal transfers within the UK for the first time. It shows that London and the South East generate more tax revenue than they receive in government spending, whilst other regions are significant net beneficiaries.

What I find important is not the numbers themselves which are entirely unsurprising, it is the fact they were calculated and published at all. Fiscal transfers within a nation state are a key feature of a stable society. If people begin to associate themselves with a region, rather than the overall country, then the cohesion of the country is called into question.

The move towards devolution of power within the UK has been growing, with mayors, local powers and of course the devolved administrations such as the Scottish parliament. The evidence so far is that granting more powers to the regions of the UK will not satisfy the desire for autonomy, In fact, it reinforces the sense of a separate identity. Publication of figures like those above works to further emphasise our differences.

Comparison to the US and the EU

To get a sense for how important fiscal transfers are to the cohesion of a state, this comparison between the US and the EU is striking. Each blue dot is a EU country, each red dot is a US state. I have used the same scale in both charts to make the differences in the dispersion clear.

Y axis Relative income per head of the population (100 is the average for each group)
Shows much greater inequality between EU countries than between US states.

X axis Net fiscal transfer between states (% of GDP)
Shows fiscal transfers between EU states are tiny compared with those between US states.

The US data is characteristic of a country i.e. large fiscal transfers are necessary within a single currency zone, given any lack of flexibility in monetary policy to deal with cyclical or structural differences. The low level of EU transfers helps show why the Eurozone is having such difficulties. One way forward for the Eurozone is to become more integrated, developing into a proper federal state, including large permanent fiscal transfers.

Perhaps the most remarkable difference between the EU and the US, is the level of attention these figures receive. In the US, this issue gets virtually no attention. If I ask Americans, they have generally no idea what the numbers might be and have never given it any thought. They pay federal taxes but do worry about the geographical split of Federal spending. On the other hand, in the EU it is a massive political issue, despite the numbers being an order of magnitude smaller. The EU budget is only 2% of GDP but generates vastly more hostility than national budgets of 20 times the size. This is a major political hurdle for the Eurozone to deal with, perhaps having the most hostile country leave the EU will help them.

My concern is that the UK is moving away from a “US level” of large fiscal transfers without political awareness or opposition. If the United Kingdom cannot regain its sense of being “United”, then the road leads to full separation.

Will the GOP turn on Trump?

A simple yet reliable model for politicians can be just to consider what gets them re-elected. If we use that model for the GOP, it works very well for their relationship with Trump.

During the Presidential primaries last year, there were some vocal opponents of Trump from within the GOP but despite some major provocations they mostly moved to support him. Those expecting his behaviour and performance of the past months to lead to him losing the support of the GOP is based upon:

  1. He is doing a bad job
  2. He is at record levels of unpopularity for an incoming President

But if we use our simple model both of these arguments quickly disappear.

  1. They would prefer a better President but this is not their major concern
  2. The electoral rationale is compelling. Trump’s popularity with non-Republicans is already at record low levels and keeps declining rapidly. But he is still overwhelmingly popular with Republican voters. By contrast virtually no-one likes Congress, with just 27% of Americans having a favourable opinion of them. So, if these really unpopular members of Congress move against a Trump they are offending the vast majority of people who might vote for them. Until this week, the GOP quickly defended him irrespective of what he had done.

Can this change?

The way that this could change is if Trump starts to bleed support from within his own supporters. But this has been predicted so many times and has always been wrong that again I have a simple model that says that they will support him irrespective of what he does. I actually think that his popularity might be best modelled as chaotic – by which I mean it could be very stable but then change enormously with what seems a small incremental catalyst.

The other way that it could change is if my simple model of the GOP is not true. Senators such as John McCain are clearly loyal to the party but prize their loyalty to their country and its Constitution more highly. What if there are some ethical lines which cannot be crossed?