Interpersonal relations presume that people have to constantly align their identities with the system of beliefs possessed of their interlocutors. To some extent, by means of communication, individuals agree to alter their identities. Hence, in a case when this impact threatens the core essence of one's psyche, people experience strong resistance towards the ideas that may change their individual opinions, perceptions and, respectfully, themselves. The external reaction that accompanies such a defensive mechanism is known as the "backfire effect" (Mooney, "Here Are 5 Infuriating Examples of Facts Making People Dumber"). The phenomenon suggests that in order to protect his/her mentality, a person who is being convinced in something that violates its structure expresses aggressiveness, refusing to accept the valid arguments, and fiercely stands for own beliefs. Understanding how to anticipate and/or address the backfire effect is important for developing good communicative and persuasive skills.
To begin with, it is necessary to give a throughout summary of the case of the backfire effect. Ann is a high-school student working part-time in McDonalds. Being interested in the mechanics of sociological and psychological processes, I strive to practice persuasive skills by convincing her that such a job is harmful because of its routine and the absence of creativeness. I have two premises in mind: the first one is that this person absorbed the reality of being a worker in McDonalds and adopted it as a part of her being. Therefore, I will trigger the backfire effect (she will begin protecting her choice of work). The second premise is that the degree of aggressiveness will depend not on the revealed arguments, but on the ways in which they are delivered. The observation of the process in a role of an active participant (persuader) is expected to provide a valuable experience in interpersonal relations. Particularly, this method is supposed to help developing effective persuasive skills as well as assist in self-management when a backfire effect is about to be triggered by my ego.
My first argument is that, according to Marx, "work produces alienation—workers' separation from and loss of control over material production" (Pampel 15). In this regard, individual identity is erased by the routine work, it does not require conscious choices (Leidner 469). Habitual activity leads to workers' alienation with "the products of their labor", "other people", and "themselves or their creative potential" (Pampel 16). In contrast, "the individual creativity strives for self-fulfillment" (Pampel 15), which should be the primary Ann's goal.
Ann replies that I misunderstand the process, claiming that the uniform standards assure well-met customers' needs, which must be the main purpose of every business. I agree that her argument is reasonable, but challenge her further by asking how she manages to endure the sameness and routine which kills her individualism. A student responds that she is good in adjusting to her external world. This quality is cherished because flexibility of personality is welcomed since it helps minimize the resistance towards adopting the routines (Leidner 475). Besides, she points out that individualized service that differs significantly from the habitual scenario may hinder the quality due to the fact that clients neither expect nor demand such changes. As a result, it may deteriorate the customers' and workers' experience and reduce the general profitability of a fast food.
I explain Ann that her beliefs constitute an example of the ‘shared delusion'. It is a social phenomenon when several (at least 2) individuals share the same system of deceptive beliefs (Pollner & McDonald-Wikler 132). Shared delusion can be understood as a collective ego-defense mechanism that has the same origin and serves similar purpose of protecting self-identity from emotional overloading. That being said, shared delusion implies that several people are disposed to the same source of challenge/threat for their ego. To protect the psyche their minds, develop similar and uniform system of false beliefs. In this regard, collective delusion is easier to maintain because one's ego observes the compliance between the intrinsic and extrinsic worlds. As a result, people do not comprehend that "we don't know that we don't know" (Rosenhan 117). Applying such concept to Ann's situation, it is possible to deduce that she and her co-workers face the same challenge of erased individualism and with the shared delusion that this approach is necessary for meeting customers' needs.
Ann begins to be angry and continues to advocate the correctness of the fast food services. She states that I should forward my reasoning to idle people who prefer remaining unemployed due to the lack of flexibility and adaptation. I argue that doing nothing stems from purposeless existence, which is unbearable for one's ego (McGrane, "Un-occupied, Un-employed: Don't Just Do Something, Stand There!" 22). I assent with the Ann's comment that, despite the fact that routine performance reduces the latitude of self-representation and expression, by this, limiting mechanics of self-perception, purposeless being completely eliminates this possibility. Hence, I emphasize that it does not correlate with the discussed question of the eliminated creativeness/self-expression. We both understand that none of us is persuaded with the arguments of one another. Nevertheless, I need to find a way to mitigate Ann's backfire effect and convince her to pay attention to alternative job options.
How It Works
To succeed with persuasion, I apply to Ethnomethodology. Ethnomethdology is a penetrable reality (Mehan & Wood 393), which consists of the five major features: reflexivity, "coherence, interactional, fragility, and permeability features" (383). Moreover, it is appropriate to clarify that, according to this theory "a reality and its signs are mutually determinative" (388). That is why, McGrane states that Ethnomethodology suggests that "most conventional sociology is a reflection of society rather than an analysis of society" ("Warning: Studying Sociology Can Be Harmful to Your Ego", 9). Another concept that is utilized to mitigate a backfire effect is Symbolic Interactionism. The theory emphasizes "subjective meaning of human behavior, the social process, and pragmatism (McClelland, "Symbolic Interactionism"). Using this theoretical knowledge, I elaborate a set of solutions needed for successful persuasion.
First and foremost, I should change my persuasion strategy from referring to Ann's personality by criticizing her job to making a mediated impact, more specifically by focusing on the alternative (opposite, creative actions) that I want her to try. For example, she can attempt to work as a promoter, which provides more possibilities for building the sense of accomplishment and self-fulfillment.
Furthermore, in terms of Ethnomethodology, it is necessary to encourage woman's reflexivity with the purpose to understand what meaning she assigns to her job without the action of a backfire effect. Moreover, it is appropriate to ask Ann to identify the shortcomings of her working position. Besides, I will request to scrutinize whether it is possible to be creative at her job and what possibilities of self-expression she may imagine (pretending that she believes in the benevolence of these qualities). In addition, I will ask two more questions that are aimed to make this woman view the situation from different sides. The first inquiry is: "When she is instructed to behave naturally, what does it mean in Ann's perception and in the perception of her manager?" The second one is: "To your opinion, is it possible that you believe that your job requires flexibility because you consider your mentality to be volatile? How do you think, which define which? What may happen if you trigger your creative side?
Explaining the way in which a proposed set of solutions correlates with Symbolic Interactionism, one should accentuate that "symbolic interactions are interested in the process of assigning meaning to actions and in the responses that follow" (O'Brien, 247). Given this insight, it is natural to presume that if I present my arguments (intonation, body language, and shift of emphasis from Ann's beliefs to the benefits of alternative job) my persuasion will be comprehended more positively.
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Scrutinizing how these solutions use the 5 features of Ethnomethodology, it is necessary to point out the following approaches. Asking Ann about the job disadvantages correlates with the notion of fragility - the system is volatile, so an individual may start acknowledging the cons even without direct persuasion. Moreover, asking the woman in question to moderate the situation which I strive to convince her to be necessary for her ego, I check Ann's coherence. It is probable that she may not be aware that advocating the positivity of routine is not the reflection of her perception, but an adopted shared delusion. Furthermore, the question about acting naturally correlates with the interactional feature; whereas, the last, egg-chicken question, refers to permeability of reality.
Summing up the above-mentioned things, it is appropriate to accentuate that the backfire effect is an ego-defensive mechanism that, however, needs to be anticipated both as a self-reaction and as the other people's response. To increase the effectiveness of communication and persuasion and avoid the occurrence of the backfire effect, one should apply to such social theories as, Ethnomethodology, and Symbolic Interactionism. Both of these concepts emphasize the subjectivity of perception. Besides, the discussed theories educate about the ambivalence of one's mind: on the one hand, it is volatile and flexible. Simultaneously, on the other hand, ego strives to defend the system of beliefs because it is a part of identity, - the approach which illustrates the steadiness of mentality. To excel in persuasion, it is necessary to remember about both manifestations.