Argument Pedagogy and the Boomerang Effect, Part 1

May 10, 2016 Les Lynn Argument and Literacy, Guest Posts, The Debatifier

By Dr. Gordon Mitchell

Ideal models of argumentation invite us to envision a world populated by arguers who gather evidence, test the strength of the evidence, and then carefully infer warranted conclusions based on that evidence. Of course, no one is perfect, so mistakes can be expected and fallacies are bound to occur in practice. But social psychology research suggests that everyday patterns of argumentation do not just deviate from such ideal norms; they tend to invert them. This inversion occurs when arguers begin with anchored conclusions and then proceed to seek confirmatory evidence in support of those conclusions, often subconsciously ignoring or discounting contrary evidence along the way.

This pattern of “motivated reasoning,” according to social psychologist Daniel Kahan, is characterized by “the tendency of people to conform assessments of information to some goal or end extrinsic to accuracy.” One classic study of the phenomenon documents how Princeton students “saw” a Dartmouth football team make twice as many penalties as Dartmouth viewers “saw” when both audiences were shown the same videotaped game. In another study, nearly identical scientific research reports that agreed with scientists’ prior beliefs were judged to be of higher quality than those that ran counter to their prior beliefs.

As understanding of motivated reasoning’s dynamics on an individual level has developed, researchers have begun to deploy the theory to explain society-wide communication patterns regarding political issues such as business regulation, environmental protection, and even political scandals. A prominent theme in this literature concerns the way that motivated reasoning patterns relate to what journalist Bill Bishop calls “the big sort” — how Americans have formed geographic, economic, and political clusters that tend to function as like-minded echo chambers.

If motivated reasoning tends to produce cognitive errors, can the process be checked or reversed? This question has prompted argumentation scholars to explore possible “debiasing” strategies to enable people to better understand and orchestrate their modes of cognitive engagement. Jeffrey Maynes takes up this challenge in theorizing about critical thinking pedagogy designed to improve students’ argumentative acumen. To better equip students for the task of avoiding cognitive traps associated with motivated reasoning, Maynes calls for classroom cultivation of “metacognitive” skill: “The metacognitive skills involved in critical thinking are those skills involved in recognizing when these cognitive skills should be used, knowing how to use them, and why to use them.”

Maynes suggests that students can develop metacognitive skill through use of a “Strategy Evaluation Matrix.” This exercise invites students to make an explicit inventory of the cognitive strategies they have available for accomplishing certain classroom assignments. According to Maynes, such strategies may include:

The “consider-the-opposite” strategy, in which students try to put themselves in the position of someone who believes the opposing (or different) view, and to give the best case they can for it.

The “values analysis” strategy, in which students write down, for themselves, what their values on a new issue are before engaging it.

The “argument mapping” strategy, in which students diagram an argument to better understand how it works.

Students in Maynes’ classes are asked to conduct journaling exercises in which they report on cases where they applied one of the strategies in the matrix to an argument they made in the past week. Through this process, students “cultivate the habit of metacognitive reflection,” enabling them to perform “motivational monitoring” that Maynes says can work to control some of the implicit biases associated with motivated reasoning.

Maynes makes a strong case that the Strategy Evaluation Matrix may be a useful tool for students to use in sharpening their metacognitive skills. His philosophical perspective is reflected in the fact that the pedagogical windfall associated with use of the matrix is located purely at the level of individual introspection. Metacognitively adept thinkers may find their skills useful in negotiating the gauntlet of difficult life decisions they are likely to face in today’s complex and fast-moving world. But what happens when these same thinkers find themselves thrown into situations where they are called upon to make joint decisions about controversial issues with others, some of whom may be far more prone to make motivated reasoning errors?

Classical argumentation theory would suggest that in these situations, interlocutors might turn to the process of critical discussion to sort out disagreements by exchanging fact-based arguments. Students and teachers of argumentation may find this familiar remedy especially appealing. Yet in practice, studies have shown that classical argumentation strategies, such as pointed rebuttals, can drive opposing arguers to circle the wagons and hold even more firmly to their prior beliefs. For example, in an experiment designed to test subjects’ reactions to corrections regarding false or unsubstantiated beliefs such as whether Iraq had weapons of mass destruction immediately before the U.S. invasion in 2003, researchers found that “direct factual contradictions can actually strengthen ideologically grounded factual beliefs.” Other researchers have observed similar “boomerang effects” following attempts to correct subjects’ factual misperceptions regarding climate change science.

The boomerang effect has prompted some prominent social psychologiests to theorize a social dimension to debiasing strategies. Moving beyond Maynes’ focus on individual cognition, they hypothesize that certain ways of arguing in social contexts can determine whether debiasing efforts will tend to boomerang or not. Noting that simple myths are more cognitively attractive than complicated refutations, for example, they recommend simple, brief rebuttals to minimize the overkill boomerang effect. And to dampen the “worldview backfire effect” (i.e. “evidence that threatens worldview can strengthen initially held beliefs”), they counsel arguers to affirm the worldview (“frame evidence in worldview-affirming manner by endorsing values of the audience”) and the identity of interlocutors (“self-affirmation of personal values increases receptivity to evidence”) of opponents or skeptics.


Psychological research on motivated reasoning presents wrinkles for argumentation educators seeking to facilitate the transfer of argumentation skills for effective use by their students. Some scholars have posited that students can tame some of the tendencies of motivated reasoning to distort their own critical thinking by cultivating “metacognitive skill” through use of tools such as the “Strategy Evaluation Matrix.” Yet these strategies provide only limited help to arguers who seek to avert the “backfire” and “boomerang” effects that can result when their challenges prompt opponents to respond by entrenching their previously held views.

This blog post explored recent scholarship that has proposed tailored “debiasing strategies” designed to increase the effectiveness of attempts to correct misinformed views held by others. A second blog post carrying part two of this essay will delve further into conceptual intersections between these debiasing strategies and specific branches of argumentation theory focusing on “antilogic” and “coalescent/cooperative argumentation.” My overall goal is to help teachers who use argument centrally in their pedagogy make their students aware of the boomerang effect that frontal refutation can trigger, and to offer them advanced strategies to overcome it, particularly in our highly polarized social milieu.


Further Reading

Bill Bishop, The Big Sort: How the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2008).

Sahara Byrne and Philip S. Hart, “The ‘Boomerang’ Effect: A Synthesis of Findings and a Preliminary Theoretical Framework,” Communication Yearbook 33 (2009): 3–38.

Dan M. Kahan, “What is Motivated Reasoning and How Does it Work?” Science and Religion Today, May 3, 2011. Online at:

Stephan Lewandowsky et al., “Misinformation and Its Correction: Continued Influence and Successful Debiasing,” Psychological Science in the Public Interest 13 (2012): 122, doi:10.1177/1529100612451018.

Jeffery Maynes, “Critical Thinking and Cognitive Bias,” Informal Logic 35, no. 2 (2015): 186. Online at:

Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler, “When Corrections Fail: The Persistence of Political Misperceptions,” Political Behavior 32 (2010): 303–30, doi:10.1007/s11109-010-9112-2.


Dr. Gordon Mitchell, an academic partner of Argument-Centered Education, is Associate Professor of Communication and Assistant Dean of the University Honors College at the University of Pittsburgh. Dr. Mitchell’s research program focuses on rhetoric, argumentation and debate, especially in military and medical contexts, and he serves as faculty liaison to Pitt’s College in High School program that brings argumentation pedagogy to 24 Pennsylvania high schools.  In his 21 years as a debate educator, Mitchell’s competitive debate teams won three national championships and he convened hundreds of public debates.