I hear lots of complaints from business owners and marketers who are frustrated with the decision by customers to stick with a competitor’s “inferior” product, even when presented with scientific evidence that “proves” their product is better.

“Since when did people start believing scientific facts?” I respond, halfway joking. I remind them that science is dismissed constantly by people who don’t want to change their existing beliefs. Scientific evidence hasn’t convinced 48 million Americans to give up smoking (fortunately, it has convinced all but 19% of Americans to). Scientific evidence hasn’t convinced many people to stop texting while driving or to allow their children to receive life-saving vaccines. So is it that surprising they reject your product’s claim?

The Backfire Effect

What’s more dismaying is that many people react to new “scientific evidence” that challenges their current beliefs in a way completely opposite from what you’d expect: They respond by digging in their heels, clinging more tightly to their existing beliefs. In 2006, political scientists Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler identified this phenomenon and dubbed it, “the backfire effect.” They showed that “efforts to debunk inaccurate political information can leave people even more convinced that false information is true than they would have been otherwise.”

The social scientists now have conducted similar research related to healthcare beliefs like childhood vaccination fears and have discovered the same type of backfire effect to scientific evidence that differs from someone’s existing belief. “Giving people corrected information is often ineffective with people whose minds we’d like to change, and in some cases it actually can make the problem worse,” Nyhan recently told NPR. “It’s much harder to change people’s minds than we might have thought.”

I am what I believe?

While not fully understood, a leading theory on why people cling to long-held, yet incorrect, beliefs is that such beliefs contribute to our sense of who we are and even can be a factor in our self-esteem. So when someone presents us facts disproving what we believe, we may subconsciously fight back against the new information because it damages something about our self identity.

If this is true—that patterns of belief inform our sense of who we are and influence self-esteem—marketers might want to rethink messages intended to convince potential customers that the marketer’s product is scientifically superior to the product the customer is now using. Our pitch, full of pride, may cause the customer to think, “Hey, are you saying I’m an idiot because I’ve always used the other guys’ widget? If so, get ready for a black eye.”

How to lessen the Backfire Effect

Focus the narrative of your product and brand on the goals and aspirations of customers, not on comparisons that claim the technical features of your product are better than the competitor’s. Rather than accidentally triggering a customer’s subconscious need to defend who they are (as in, what they currently believe), look for ways to ease their journey across a bridge to a new reality and truth they can discover for themselves. Help them find their way to the truth, step-by-step, instead of bashing them over the head with it.

(A version of this essay by Rex Hammock, founder and “head-helper” of SmallBusiness.com, appeared in the Idea Email of Hammock Inc., the Direct-to-Customer Media and Content company.)

(Illustration: ThinkStock, SmallBusiness.com)

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