Election Recounts and the Backfire Effect

Charles Sanders Peirce.jpg

Doubt is an uneasy and dissatisfied state from which we struggle to free ourselves and pass into the state of belief; while the latter is a calm and satisfactory state which we do not wish to avoid, or to change to a belief, in anything else. On the contrary, we cling tenaciously, not merely to believing, but to believing just what we do believe.
~Charles Sanders Pierce “The Fixation of Belief”1

© Darrell Arnold Ph.D.– (Reprinted with Permission)

Trump’s failed court actions after the 2020 election underline that he lost the election. His claims of fraud have now been examined by the courts and rejected. Election officials have had a chance to more deeply scrutinize the election. Recounts have shown, once again, that Biden won. It’s common to expect that faced with this evidence the Trump supporters would acquiesce and accept the legitimacy of the election. Some would think that even Donald Trump would. Trump’s supporters should be able to grasp that the allegations are empty — or at the very least have been shown to be wrong.

Those more optimistic might even think that when we see that Trump has fired Christopher Krebs, the director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency of Homeland Security, apparently for circulating the multi-agency document that emphasized that this election was “the safest in history,” Trump supporters might also suspect that Trump is attempting some kind of cover-up. Or they might conclude that the whole post-election protest by the Trump team is some kind of charade. While these would be reasonable expectations, this in fact is not what is happening.

What’s happening instead is that Trump’s base is doubling down on their false beliefs. Philosophers and behavioral psychologists call the phenomenon that we’re witnessing the “backfire effect.”2 This is the phenomenon that arguments and disproofs of a person’s beliefs often lead to the person becoming even more convinced of the false beliefs than they were before seeing the evidence. This is sometimes chalked up to mental laziness, combined with a widespread desire that individuals have to view themselves as consistent and to have consistent views over time (sometimes known as the consistency bias).

In light of all this, once we have a belief (or at least once a certain mentally lazy or insecure person has a belief), it appears to take less effort or to be less daunting to the ego to find rationalizations for why it is true rather than to re-evaluate it. This causes less cognitive dissonance. Not rarely a belief is also tied into a network or system of other beliefs against which it makes sense. It is consistent with those other beliefs. Were an individual to pull that one link out of the belief system, the entire system might appear to weaken.

In the case of the Trump supporters, we find that many are already suspicious of the “deep state.” Many voted for Trump because he tells a different narrative than the traditional career politician. Against this backdrop, the recent court rejection of the allegations of fraud thus doesn’t show that there was no fraud but that the suspicion of the courts by Trump’s base is justified.

The fact that “lifelong politicians” like governors and lieutenant governors or election officials, after review, still don’t acknowledge that Trump is president doesn’t show that Trump is wrong about the election. It simply shows that Trump is correct that career politicians and bureaucrats are what’s wrong with this country. And the fact that Trump fires Krebs, which the Left views as a nefarious cover-up of the election, isn’t nefarious at all. It’s a sign that Trump alone is the one who will actually take action against this deep state.

Contrary to expectations, then, Trump’s second failure — his failure with the courts and the state legislators — doesn’t have the effect on his base that it would have on people who were open to the honest evaluation of evidence. Instead, the antics work. He repeats the false claims and has a forum to do so for a longer period of time. The further scrutiny that should convince people that there really is no doubt that Trump has lost the election actually leads to the opposite result. His base believes more firmly than ever that he won.


1. “The Fixation of Belief” is one of the great, short pieces in the history of philosophy. It comes highly recommended.

2. The existence of a specific “backfire effect” is controversial and the effect may be better understood as a kind of confirmation bias. For more see Wikipedia’s entry on confirmation bias.

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9 thoughts on “Election Recounts and the Backfire Effect

  1. “A year in politics is a long time; four years is an eternity”
    —unknown commentator.

    Trump is also looking to the next election, the midterms of 2022; and to the general elections of 2024. So the current maneuvering by his administration makes ‘sense’ for them and their followers.
    At any rate, let’s skip over the mind-numbing political games going on, and examine continuity. In the past, conservatism was based on continuity, however as high tech evolves, old-time conservatism fades.
    Trump’s election in 2016 demonstrates that organized yet rigid morality gives way to disorganized but less rigid situational ethics; thus the meaning of postwar conservatism is quite altered.
    Trump is being defended by some of his intellectual supporters as being a nonconservative working for conservative ends. Matter of opinion, but that the meaning of continuity is being changed is not in doubt and never has been. The meaning of continuity in the antebellum 1850s differed greatly from the continuity of the postwar 1950s.
    IMO, without offering any hard evidence, Trump’s election in 2016 signifies that high tech has transformed conservatism into shall we say here high tech toryism.
    Toryism is hierarchical and less continuity-oriented: in brief, it enables many in syncretizing the traditional with the progressive. Being a layman, such is as far as I can go with it at this time.

  2. I first heard about the “backfire effect” in work by Michael Shermer, “Why People Believe Weird Things.” Cass Sunstein (who some may know from “Nudge”) has also referred to it in various contexts. The effect, in short, maintains that in certain contexts when people are confronted with evidence that disconfirms their beliefs they reject that evidence and double down on their mistaken beliefs. Various research has supported this. But considerable research appears to find it hard to duplicate. So over time it has become questionable that the effect is as widespread as was earlier thought. And some would question whether it exists at all.

    One reason that those of us in the business of reasoning find the idea of the backfire effect disconcerting is that it seems to render a lot of our reasoning and information gathering superfluous. If people are not convinced to change their false beliefs when confronted with better information and better reasoning, then we might wonder why we should bother trying to convince people of anything to begin with. Why appeal to facts and reason if facts and reason aren’t convincing, but are in fact counter-productive. I do not see, though, that those who discuss the “backfire effect” maintain that it exists in all cases. Rather, it is more generally thought to be something that effects certain people in certain specific contexts. It may be that it’s not even best to frame my observations of what is happening with some Trump voters in reference to this backfire effect. But I do indeed believe that for some of that base, the evidence presented against their views is largely taken and contorted into evidence that confirms some ideas that they already believe. So the efforts to convince that part of the Trump base with its mistakes through evidence based reasoning is not having the desired effect. In the last part of the blog post I note what in part is going on. Some of the members of that Trump base take the incoming information about the failed court cases, for example, and use it to confirm the view that they already have — namely that the courts are corrupt. Or they take the statements from governors and lieutenant governors about the integrity of the election not as evidence that the election has integrity, but as evidence the confirms what they already believe — namely that the governors and lieutenant governors have no integrity. Like Trump says, these career politicians need to be replaced, unless of course, they agree with Trump.

    This plays out for a particularly ideologically entrenched part of the Trump base. They do hold their beliefs as something akin to religious dogmas. Indeed, the belief in Trump’s integrity, for some, has become a hard and fast part of their identities. So for these members, reasoning and facts have little or no effect, or the opposite of the desired effect. As I note, their views are not falsifiable. I’m not sure what percentage of the 70% of Republicans who think the 2020 election has had considerable fraud (from the Left) fall into this intractable camp.

    Other things are going on in any case to re-affirm their beliefs for the short term. For many, the framing of the election through Fox pundits is having an effect. For many, they are, in line with confirmation bias, seeking out sources of information that confirm their beliefs and ignoring information sources that challenge those beliefs. So for now they remain in a bubble that reiterates much of what they believe and downplays the types of information mentioned in my piece that challenges their beliefs. In those social media bubbles, they are more apt to see videos (which in many cases have been demonstrated not to show the fraud that is alleged). Over the long run, I assume a number of these individuals may change their minds. But that depends to some extent on whether there are media sites and social media platforms that continue the massive disinformation that makes it possible for people to shield themselves from better sources of information.

    One of the benefits over the long run that may help to decrease the prevalence of the false beliefs about the election is that Trump will be removed from office and not have his present platform to spread disinformation. If he is not the standard bearer for the Republican Party going forward, then his voice will become one of many, more like that of Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity, important but not important for all of the party.

    Here I’ll mention one other “effect” that will then diminish — the “halo effect” surrounding Trump. I know this is an odd sounding effect to name in reference to someone as out of sync with culturally widespread views of sanctity as Trump. But that effect is described simply as the tendency that individuals have to assign good qualities to those standard bearers (say of a Party) who they already think are good and to assign bad qualities to those they already view as bad. Any party leaders , as the standard has enormous power. Partisans want to believe their standard bearers. They are very strongly predisposed to give him or her the benefit of the doubt and to place blame with the other party. In the case of Trump, the standard bearer has been a pathological liar. But he still has benefited enormously from this good will that people have toward the standard bearers. Assuming Trump recedes in significance in the Party, his influence over the views of those in the Party will also recede. And there is some chance that a considerable number of Republicans will return to a position of suspicion about Russia (one of the more surprising twists in Republican ideology under Trump)) and that belief in voter fraud may to recede.

    But I am not able to read the tea leaves (and I don’t understand the science around decision making) well enough to be sure of how much these views will shift.

  3. A very insightful article, I will read the book mentioned. As for Trump, today’s news is that he finally concedes that Biden has won.

    This famous quote comes to mind (I think it is often wrongly attributed to Churchill and others):

    “Truth goes through three stages: firstly, it is derided. Then it is violently opposed. And then it is finally accepted as self-evident”. – Schopenhauer

  4. It’s obvious this week that Trump has been testing boundaries, seeing how far he can push us—he certainly does not want to do anything to affect his dynasty negatively. He doesn’t want his descendants to remember him as the president who was evicted from the White House by US Marshals.
    To return to the backfire effect of Trump’s followers, many of them don’t know much about politics, some are them are simply not very bright. And now that we can see how crafty Trump is in pushing only to the limit and not beyond, it becomes clear.
    Clear that one reason Trump is admired by his
    Followers is that his cleverness in going to the brink but not past it, matches their histrionics. A passion play of sorts. The deep state, they think, was trying to arrest their savior, but he escaped from the Roman soldiers.
    Politics evolved from religion, so their fears are not surprising.
    All I know for fact is that high tech is slowly changing the way people think for the better. Actions? Can’t be predicted. But fascism is unlikely in today’s well-fed world. In the ‘20s and ‘30s, hungry stormtroopers would march to battle; whereas today’s pudgy white nationalists march in disorganized parades sans uniforms.
    In the 1860s, Johnny Reb marched to Bull Run for combat—now he marches into a convenience store for a Red Bull energy drink.
    AI can calm Johnny Reb down, he can fight a virtual Civil War to a different conclusion than the real one; the slaves are freed but the Confederacy remains intact. And since it is in cyberspace, in Johnny’s mind, such is not as negative as the real-life Jefferson Davis Trump drama. Backfire. Drama. Histrionics. Passion Play.

  5. Agreed, agreed, agreed. The evidence for voter fraud is non-existent and any limited fraud was isolated and from the evidence presented, it seemed to be in favor trump. Darrell, I am by no means attempting to detract from your argument but only to add. A point that need be made is that his wounds are self-inflicted. Politicians and media alike warned of the election process results. Every voting deterrent employed only encouraged more turn-out. Twenty-five years ago, as a serviceman, I voted absentee and no one questioned the validity of my vote, nor would it be in question today had trump not created a ruckus. And rest assured, some of those on the right voted the same way. Forgive my ignorance, I can’t cite an author, but I understand that by merely uttering something it has (at some level) been granted an existence. Quickly, I am drawn to metaphysics. Simply by stating the “a god” exists, then it does. That thought has echoed inside me during the election. The non-falsifiable belief argument seems a precursor to the backfire effect as you and Doc so brilliantly detailed. One can exist without the other but they make quite a pair.
    Forever the optimist, I believe that this may be a good thing if for no other reason than those who adopt this idea are exposed and left naked. Can we all agree that moving forward, those running for office will be more vigilant to thwart such ideas from taking shape by being more transparent in their efforts. Perhaps Democrats will finally get off of their bottoms and establish a hack-proof voting initiative that allows all to have a voice and plow over the Republican efforts to quash the voice of millions of marginalized Americans whom can’t take off Tuesday and vote because they are providing for their family of five? 80 million folks either in-person or by mail proved that our faith is not shaken. Granted there are those on the other side, but a significant amount of the populous have rallied and shown they want to be heard. Everyone from underprivileged blacks to the young have now actively joined in the process and hopefully that trend will continue for years to come even without such a formidable nemesis—I hope.
    I believe those products of the backfire effect and those who support the conspiracy theory claims will fall by the way side. Their excitement and foundation will crumble, leaving the respective populous engaged in the real and validated voting process. We survived this administration fractured but intact.
    “The United States government is perfectly capable of escorting trespassers out of the White House” – Joe Biden

  6. Hi Jason: Thanks. I agree with you. Once Trump is removed from the White House his sway will decrease. At that point, I think you’ll find more people who are listening to him, and without him repeating the big lies, fewer people will believe them.

    Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda minister, is at least one of the people known fort having made the statement that you note. Here’s I believe a correct quote from him, which I just got when googling this:

    “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State.”

    Trump has known this and been doing it his whole life. It helped him as a promoter of All Star Wresting. Who knew it would be enough to get him into the White House?

  7. Jason: I should add, the real voter fraud is of course the attempt by Republicans that you point toward to prevent the votes of millions who remain disenfranchised. The voter suppression tactics are old, but still effective. There’s no reason that we can’t simplify registration, making it possible to register when you get a license in every state, or doing other such measures. But the Republicans are frightened to do this because if all Americans vote, as Trump noted, they would never be elected again.

  8. Darrell,
    Agreed…simply by utterance one can bring something to life, though this time it was a Frankenstein-esk image of voting that gained traction via conspiracy theory. Glad to see that our democracy survived and if our new administration puts in place safeguards, perhaps we can thwart future efforts to topple our Nation. Sadly, norms and conventional wisdom has been tossed aside for a ludicrous power grab at the expense of the integrity of our system of voting.
    For whatever reason, absurdity seems to resonate with the conservative populous. As you noted, disenfranchisement wins elections. Here in Texas they (Republicans) attempted to toss roughly 100k votes due to technicalities. I can’t offer a solution, but I can see the scale beginning to tip in opposition and attribute this to educated youth and their growing interest in political affairs—ironically a byproduct of the former administration. Whodathunkit!

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