Reduce the risk of psychological backfiring

Business Benefits

Decrease your chances of your content creating negative attention and unwanted behaviors in your audience.


Audit your site and social media for psychological backfires like credibility damage, inexperience, fineprint fallacy, personality responses, poor judgment, or social psychology.

Look for issues in your copy like:

  • Self-discrediting: Your message is inauthentic, difficult to believe or based on discredited information.
  • Message hijacking: Your audience or the general public has taken your original message and given it another meaning.
  • Superficializing: Applying a theory without an understanding of the underlying strategy / logic.
  • Overemphasizing and fineprint fallacy: Exclusively highlighting the benefits while hiding negatives / side effects in the proverbial (or literal) fine print.
  • Defiance arousing: When a message does not align with the audience’s self-identity, they are inclined to defy it and display the opposite behavior.
  • Self-licensing: When someone is succeeding or behaving correctly in one area of life, they sometimes believe they can neglect or misbehave in another.
  • Mistailoring: When a message is not tailored to the audience correctly and creates a negative reaction among part (or all) of the audience.
  • Mistargeting: When a message intended for one segment of the audience is misinterpreted by another.
  • Misdiagnosing: When you do not correctly analyze your audience’s behavior and cognitive processes.
  • Misanticipating: When controlled changes lead to unexpected changes in beliefs and behaviors.
  • Anti-modeling: When a negative behavior is displayed to demonize and condemn it, but the negative behavior increases as a result of the increased awareness.
  • Reverse norming: When a negative behavior is shown, it can become a social norm, which increases the likelihood that it will be repeated.

For example, when The Economist realized women make up a small portion of their online audience, they decided to run this example of mistailoring:

The Economist

Image Source

Obviously, they meant that The Economist is for everyone, regardless of gender. But since their audience is mostly male, it certainly didn’t come across that way.

Before making website or social media changes, A/B test with a small portion of your audience to limit the spread of any backfires.

If you think X will cause a behavior change of Y, test it on a portion of your audience before pushing it live to everyone.

When you find a variation that improves conversions, look for evidence of backfires using qualitative research like user testing, click maps, scroll maps, and surveys.

Record all backfires and refer to them before running future tests.

These records will help you to predict issues in the future. Prevention is better than cure.

If you still have control of a backfire and it’s causing an overall negative outcome, remove it.

There isn’t always a right vs. wrong when it comes to backfiring: just because it backfires with some people does not mean you should remove or change it. Only remove or change it when you find that it backfires holistically.

You could lose control of the backfire. Once a message is hijacked, you lose control of it and can’t remove or change it.

Look for long-term backfires that might have an impact in the future.

Consider the people just outside your target audience. If you change the behavior of your target audience, that might influence the way adjacent audiences behave. An example is CrossFit: so many people love CrossFit that it puts off others who are “sick of hearing about it”. As a result, people who are interested in going to a gym might turn to GoodLife instead of CrossFit, of which they have now developed a negative opinion.

When you implement psychology, ask yourself: How will this impact my ability to scale?