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Facts and Evidence Make No Difference – or Worse by Burt Perrin

Hello, AEA365 community! Liz DiLuzio here, Lead Curator of the blog. This week is Individuals Week, which means we take a break from our themed weeks and spotlight the Hot Tips, Cool Tricks, Rad Resources and Lessons Learned from any evaluator interested in sharing. Would you like to contribute to future individuals weeks? Email me at AEA365@eval.org with an idea or a draft and we will make it happen.

Hi, I’m Burt Perrin and I’d like you to think about how people really react to evidence. In particular, I will highlight the backfire effect that refers to the reality that when facts are presented that show that one’s cherished beliefs are wrong, instead of people changing these (incorrect) beliefs, they become even stronger. This has profound implications for evaluation, with the predominant view still that the role of evaluation is to produce evidence.

The conundrum of the backfire effect has been accentuated in the post-truth/false news era, for example, as illustrated by Trump and his supporters who have rejected any evidence they did not like, including facts about who won the 2020 presidential election, or similarly, with anti-vaxers who reject the reality of COVID-19, or other followers of conspiracy theories.

The reality, however, is that there is nothing new about this phenomenon. And it does not just apply to extremists. It also applies to highly educated people, including scientists who may be reluctant or unable to part with their pet theories long after it has (or should have) become clear that these have become obsolete. Thomas Kuhn, in his seminal The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, documents this situation, arguing that scientific progress comes not through “normal” incremental gains but through revolutions, where the views of the old guard are replaced by those of a newer generation.

This phenomenon, with unwillingness to accept even hard evidence, may also be behind a lot of resistance to evaluation, where people may be highly resistant to evidence that does not coincide with their own views about their program, or when it may seem that one’s employment may be threatened.

Evaluators have long known, or should have known, as Carol Weiss has documented years ago, that evidence alone is never sufficient to change views or policies, and that evaluation reports, or evidence, do not speak for themselves. But the predominant view still is that our primary role is to provide evidence, as “rigorous” as possible.

Mitigating the backfire effect

While the backfire effect is very real, following are some strategies, however imperfect, that could help minimize or contain this.

  1. Adopt a mindset that acknowledges that facts and evidence do not speak for themselves. And recognize that “objective” evidence represent only one input into how policies, and decisions, are made.
  2. Recognize when the backfire effect may be strongest. In particular, this only applies to deeply held beliefs. A key implication for evaluation is to avoid creation of entrenched views. In this respect, participative approaches that engages stakeholders throughout the evaluation process, with developmental evaluation representing just one example, is more likely to gain acceptance than a confrontational approach. The same goes for positive thinking approaches, such as appreciative inquiry.
  3. Learn from social psychology. There is considerable evidence about how beliefs, perceptions, and attitudes are mediated by pre-existing views, values, culture, experiences, and context. The theory of cognitive dissonance and self justification is particularly relevant.
  4. Consider social marketing strategies. This implies, in particular, active listening, learning as much as possible about the target audience, rather than just lecturing. Consider using voices that may have more credibility than “experts” to convey information. And be selective, recognizing that not all people respond to the backfire effect in the same way, and you cannot expect to convince everyone.

Burt Perrin (Burt@BurtPerrin.com), formerly from Canada and currently living in France, has been engaged in evaluation internationally for many years, for example as a leader and founding member of the CES, EES, and AEA.

Do you have questions, concerns, kudos, or content to extend this aea365 contribution? Please add them in the comments section for this post on the aea365 webpage so that we may enrich our community of practice. Would you like to submit an aea365 Tip? Please send a note of interest to aea365@eval.org . aea365 is sponsored by the American Evaluation Association and provides a Tip-a-Day by and for evaluators. The views and opinions expressed on the AEA365 blog are solely those of the original authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the American Evaluation Association, and/or any/all contributors to this site.

1 thought on “Facts and Evidence Make No Difference – or Worse by Burt Perrin”

  1. This is such an important point for evaluators! In fact, I have shared this post with my entire team because it is so important that we folks in the ‘evidence business’ keep this in mind! Thank you for sharing it!

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