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Alan White

Alan White

I recently learned about an interesting psychological phenomena known as the backfire effect. What happens is, that when people are presented with clear evidence on something, such as the importance of talking about mental well-being and well-being education, if it contradicts their long held core beliefs, the truth or evidence will be immediately rejected.

In fact this reaction is so strong, that when our core beliefs are challenged it triggers the same emotional response that a physical threat to us creates. We are all familiar with what is called the fight or flight response when we feel physically threatened. We are also familiar with the stress that can remain with us afterwards. The exact same response is triggered when we experience the backfire effect.

We can see this effect in many ways. And I’m sure we have all experienced it for ourselves. When someone challenges our belief, we immediately respond defensively, without any thought. This is why many of us fear change for example. The backfire effect can cause a response in us that is similar to our reaction to a physical threat. This is why new ideas that contradict our old comforting beliefs are often initially rejected.

So how does this fit into well-being education. As anyone who reads my articles on a regular basis will know, I am passionate about introducing a space within education to allow students to learn skills to take control of and take care of their well-being. Thankfully the conversation around mental health is beginning to normalise in this country thanks to the tireless work and campaigning by the many wonderful organisations working in mental health.

However we are still a long way from where we need to be. There is still a large scale rejection when the topic is brought up. Time and time again I am contacted by teachers who are interested in introducing well-being into their school. There is a clear willingness in education to engage in this important area. So how do we continue to make progress?

When an idea is rejected it is almost always rejected out of fear or lack of understanding. I believe that fear must be met with compassion rather than anger and frustration. Yes, Well-being needs to be urgently taught at all levels of education, but the resistance to this need is inevitable given the historical stigmatisation of the topic. When we meet this fear based rejection, we are not meeting a bad person or someone who is not willing to help. I believe that a long held belief is being challenged and this is triggering the backfire effect.

As Socrates said, “I cannot teach anybody anything, I can only make them think”. So when we encounter such a situation, it is only natural to become frustrated and through frustration inevitably comes anger. However rather than allowing anger to take over which will ultimately not work anyway, I believe that by using compassion, firstly with ourselves, and then with those whose attitudes we are trying to change, will achieve much better results.

It’s normal to become frustrated at times when working towards something, no matter what it is. I have often become frustrated myself over the years. If I’m being honest I have struggled to keep the fire burning recently despite making incremental progress during this time. But as I have mentioned in previous blogs, it’s sometimes necessary to stop, reflect, refocus and begin again.

Remember that change is happening right now, progress is being made, however slow. Yes it needs to happen faster but meeting fear with frustration will never work. Let’s keep the conversation going and remember to use compassion whenever we meet resistance.

Link to shop: Choices – Facilitators Manual Description