Changing Minds and the BackFire Effect

Changing Minds and the BackFire Effect

I Couldn’t Believe!

I remember a few years ago when talking to a chiropractor, he told me about John of God from Brazil.  John of God is a healer who channels many spirit guides to commit a huge range of medical miracles.  The chiropractor told me that John of God attracts thousands of people from all over the world.  He told me about the experience, how he had to wait in long lines to see him.  He described the “visible operation” he had chosen, and told me that he had been cured.   The story seemed so beyond my belief system that I developed an unfavorable view of this chiropractor.   I was so uncomfortable with the story that I wanted to roll my eyes and run away.   I kept my distance from him (for other reasons as well) after that.

This isn’t the only time I’ve run from information presented to me.  I rolled my eyes at the Law of Attraction for years!  And when someone told me in the early 90’s that physicians had done a hemispherectomy on a child, and that it wasn’t expected to result in serious consequences, again, I rolled my eyes, and decided that he was rather naive.

I’m not the only one that runs from information that falls outside of their belief systems!

Making Others Uneasy With My Beliefs

we can reject new ideasAs an energy practitioner, so much of what we do can seem so hard to believe!  I’ve lost the trust of some people when I told them stories that they weren’t ready to believe.   I get it.   I’ve been that skeptic before, and I’m pretty sure I would have been uncomfortable with such stories just a decade ago!

Running from our versions of the truth shows up even more when they touch on subjects that could be construed as political.   Liberals and Republicans have become so divided in our beliefs over the last few decades that we can barely talk to each other!

But we don’t always run from new information!  

Beliefs that We Run From

For example, if I told you that the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) is involved in decision making and ethics and morality, I don’t think it would raise too many eyebrows.

But if I told you that *an entity was interfering with the functioning of a client’s ACC, more of you would raise eyebrows, and decide that I’m a little cuckoo.

And if I told you that releasing imbalances in the ACC was **all we needed to do to make people moral decision makers, I’m guessing many of you would roll your eyes, click away from reading this immediately, and decide that I’m being ridiculous or naive.

But even if the last point I made wasn’t true, why do we respond so drastically to some stories?  Why do we run from some beliefs and do everything we can to avoid hearing them?  Why are we more likely to consider other beliefs that are equally as outrageous?

Because certain beliefs trigger our amygdala.amygdala

The Backfire Effect

Researchers from University of Southern CA found that the more political our beliefs, the more resistant we are changing them.  They recruited 40 self-declared liberals.  They were asked to rate the strength of beliefs from 0 to 7, that were either considered traditionally liberal, or unrelated to politics.  They then put subjects in an MRI, and gave them five counterfactual statements to their beliefs in order to see whether they would change their mind, and how.  They then asked them to rerate the strengths of their original beliefs.  As expected, there was a much bigger shift in non-political beliefs then political ones. Furthermore, resistance to change was correlated with increased activity in the amygdala and insula cortex.  The amygdala is the fight or flight region of the brain and lightens up when threatened. The insular cortex helps to interpret those feelings.

Why does the amygdala light up when presented with ideas that threaten our political beliefs?  Why do we feel so threatened and why are we so resistant to changing these beliefs?  Because shifting these beliefs can mess with our self-identity!  If we see ourselves as liberal, and we don’t respect conservatives, who are we if we allow our beliefs to become more conservative?  Furthermore, our self-identity is also connected to who we spend time with.  If our beliefs change, will we still be accepted by our peers?

“When our bathroom scale delivers bad news, we hop off and then on again, just to make sure we didn’t misread the display or put too much pressure on one foot. When our scale delivers good news, we smile and head for the shower. By uncritically accepting evidence when it pleases us, and insisting on more when it doesn’t, we subtly tip the scales in our favor”.

– Psychologist Dan Gilbert in The New York Times

The BackFire Effect has Consequences

If you are an environmentalist, you probably already understand how detrimental the backfire affect could be.  As a healer, I am saddened by the number of people who feel so disempowered about their health, when I know that so much more is possible than they currently are willing to believe.

I even see the backfire effect happen in the process of healing!  Sometimes if a client has had a disease for a long time it can become a part of their identity.  These clients come to me desperate to change, but after showing progress for a few sessions, they disappear, and won’t return my calls even if they’ve already paid for more sessions!  I later learned this is a common problem with a variety of practitioners!  With a new understanding of how threatening a shift in belief can be, I will now try to determine if they identify with their illness, and address the issue as needed.

Back in 1840, Ignaz Semmelweis showed that hand-washing could drastically reduce the number of women dying during childbirth.  Despite his rigorous research, his ideas took 50 yrs before they were accepted by mainstream medicine!  Why? Because this was before the discovery of the germ theory.  They at that point could not conceive that a disease could be passed from one person to another!   Thousands of women lost their lives, thanks to the backfire effect!

What Can We Do to Circumvent the Backfire Effect?

We are limited in our ability to change beliefs in others if they aren’t willing to change.  Some of us have slightly more influence than others based on our demographics or our achievements.  So for example I might have more persuasive ability to convince somebody that energy medicine works because of my ability to cite the research and because I have a PhD in Neuroscience.  But my arguments at best might help a skeptic question their previously held beliefs.  They will probably have to meet several others that are as persuasive as I am before considering it as an option for their own healing.

But with pharmacists, most MDs, and many of my former colleagues, I know that trying to convince them would have such a strong backfire effect, that I don’t even try.

So if we don’t feel like we’re getting anywhere with trying to change other’s minds, should we just give up?

Focus on the Relationship

I think we have to be sensitive to when we have triggered the backfire effect and the types of people that are likely to get triggered by it.  If you sense the person you were talking to is very resistant to what you were saying, then it would be a good idea to back off on insisting on your point.  You can say something like “I value your opinion and I’m not tied to convincing you that I’m right.  We may have to agree to disagree, but I just would like to invite you to consider an alternative way to think this.”  If you want to have an ongoing relationship with this person then let them know that you care more about your relationship with them than being right.  Then suggest you move onto a more agreeable topic.


“You can catch more flies with honey than vinegar”

– unknown

Share Ideas with Groups and Social Media

I also ***use social media to spread the ideas of others with more authority than I.  I figure those who are ready for opening their minds will receive it.  The more mainstream these ideas become, the easier it will be for others to accept.  For example for the 8 years that I’ve been practicing energy medicine, there has been a growing awareness and acceptance of it.  In fact, a few months ago, there was a tele-summit focusing on energy medicine for the functional medicine community!

Ideas can be slow to evolve.  As with hand washing in the medical profession, it can take time.  But the more people that stand up and speak up for what we believe in, the faster change will happen!

When We Run From New Ideas

We also have to be wary when we reject a new idea because it interferes with our identity.  I missed out on the benefits of the Law of Attraction for many years because I rolled my eyes at it for so long!  I later came to learn that people can almost completely recover with a hemispherectomy!  And while I’m still not completely comfortable with all of John of God’s claims, after hearing many personal accounts from very educated people who I admire, I will treat any future stories with more respect than I did that first time.  And if I hadn’t been told multiple times that healing was possible through channeling, ****I would have never considered that it might be something I could do!

Be a Truth Seeker

One thing that prevents us from rejecting new ideas that interfere with our identity, is if we are dedicated to knowing the truth regardless of our biases.  For example, because my identity and ego was so tied up in being a neuroscientist for so long, I didn’t want to know anything about ghosts, curses or even crystals.  I wanted them, and the idea of them to just to go away. But because I fully understood the value in knowing the truth regardless of my opinion, I had a put aside my ego and be willing to accept the evidence put forth to me.   This made me terribly uneasy!  However, this growing expansion of awareness has made me a more effective healer, and that is more important than my ego.  It is unfortunate that Western medicine has been so afraid to humbly learn from the wisdom of so many ancient healing methods.  It is limiting their knowledge of what is possible and their ability to help patients heal.

What else can we do to help us overcome the backfire effect?  Knowledge is power!  Use the social media buttons to like and share this article and this brilliant and fun oatmeal cartoon on the subject.


*I made this up.. but things like this have happened!


**I made this up, and while it’s possible that it might help someone become a moral decision maker, I don’t know whether it would be sufficient.  And as much as I’d like to test this, I don’t tend to attract unethical decision makers as clients.


***If posting something that could be controversial, to avoid trolling, I recommend stating that you welcome opposing ideas if they are presented respectfully. Otherwise they will be deleted.  Then be prepared to delete disrespectful comments.


**** I learned a few months ago that I could channel frequencies to specific areas of the body, and this has a huge variety of healing benefits.  I do not channel any other method at this point, and don’t know what is in store for my future in that regard.  It wasn’t something I asked for, but I was guided to it, and then told I could do it!  Yes… I recognize how crazy this sounds!  I was in shock when I found out, and gathered a lot of evidence of effectiveness before I started applying it with clients!

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