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You'll never trigger psychological backfiring again

You will never trigger psychological backfiring again

Neuroscience and psychology are exciting and hold a lot still uncovered potential. What is often conveniently left unmentioned is a phenomenon called psychological backfiring. That is when a psychological intervention has ‘an opposite and undesirable effect to what was intended‘. With the advances in brain research and the current hype around its application in marketing and conversion, it is easy to get overenthusiastic. Find out how you can prevent psychological backfiring.

Limiting backfiring to a minimum goes hand in hand with understanding the underlying principles and patterns behind decision-making. It allows a smarter, scientifically backed-up choice of strategies that are less likely to backfire. Bringing Brain & Behaviour to (business) professionals paves the way to better choice architecture, more straightforward design, more productive team-work, and much more.

Intention × outcome

To fully understand the concept of psychological backfiring, let’s have a look at the possible outcomes a behavioral change intervention can have. The intention-outcome matrix below (Stibe & Cugelman, 2016) puts them into four categories.

Psychological backfiring: an unintended negative outcome of a behavioural change intervention.

Dark patterns, interventions that are only beneficial for the developer, will be skipped. Neurofied only supports ethical applications of tactics and strategies.

When choosing a promising strategy, the target behavior and the possible backfiring should be part of the decision.

The target behavior is the intended goal of the intervention; it is beneficial and desirable. In the case of an anti-smoking campaign, it would be the reduction of smokers in the target group.

Backfiring comprises all unintended and negative outcomes. Usually, every intervention causes some backfiring; especially if the target group cannot be clearly defined. An anti-smoking campaign could result in some people to start smoking. For example, by stressing how widely spread this addiction is, it might seem like everybody is smoking, which downplays the dangers.

However, interventions can also have unexpected benefits. They were not intended, but are nevertheless beneficial.

Types of psychological backfiring

Stibe and Cugelman further zoom in on different types of backfiring.


Inexperience or a lack of understanding of the underlying psychological principles and concepts cause backfiring. Same as it is pure madness to jump out of a plane with a parachute without knowing how to use it. Too much depends on chance and luck.

It’s easy to avoid backfiring caused by inexperience through education and thorough planning. Our 1-Day Crash Course held by experienced neuropsychologists is a wise next step to deepen your knowledge.

What not to do: Let a teenager promote a fragrance intended for businesspersons in their mid-30s is likely to backfire.

Fine-print fallacy

In the age of increased obesity rates, ‘low-fat’ food and ‘0% sugar’ beverages are on every shelf in our supermarkets (and online supermarkets). However, all too often a close look at the fine-print, reveals the inconvenient truth. A low-fat yoghurt (‘must be low-calorie and healthy‘ you think) usually contains more sugar and trans-fat than a normal-fat yoghurt. On a diet, not reading the fine-print can backfire.

It’s the same with highly promoted money-back offers: often only the fine print reveals the extra conditions. Overemphasising one benefit can hide harmful factors. That’s known as the fine-print fallacy.

Therefore, as a consumer, always be cautious around overly positive presented products and offers.

What not to do: If an expert tells you he uses bundling prices as a strategy to increase sales, don’t blindly copy it. Depending on your product, it might have the opposite effect. For instance, if you combine an expensive product with a cheap one, the perceived value of the expensive one decreases.

Credibility damage

Strategies applied in the wrong context, lacking authenticity or simply difficult to believe may lead to a brand’s loss of credibility. This can wrongly sound like sarcasm or humour and can lead to negative and angry reactions. For example, an exaggerated attempt to trigger a specific emotion like fear or love might then appear ridiculous and won’t attract the desired audience.

What not to do: Addressing political or societal issues in your campaigns. It holds high risks of being misinterpreted and given a different meaning, for example, by using it for social media parodies. An example for a (probably unintended) racist commercial is a TV spot for Heineken’s light beer from 2018. It included the slogan ‘sometimes, lighter is better’ and featured a bartender sliding a beer past three darker colored women to a light-skinned woman.

How to prevent psychological backfiring

Here are five advises to keep in mind when tackling the risk of backfiring:

  1. Know your target audience and the context. The better you can foresee the audience’s response, the better you can customise your intervention campaign and the greater its success.
  2. Learn about the brain. With many studies focusing on situations in which a neuroscientific tactic succeeds, one can easily get the impression that they always work. However, you can never with certainty, foresee all outcomes.
  3. Better safe than sorry. Testing your psychological technique helps to identify beneficial strategies and to detect the ones that cause more backfiring than favourable target outcomes.
  4. Go with the flow. Immediate effects of a campaign don’t have to be the same in the long-run. Be willing to adjust or stop strategies if, over time, target group or circumstances shift.
  5. Keep calm. Even when characterising your target group carefully and considering situational factors, it is always possible to misjudge and make wrong presumptions. Being transparent and employing an appropriate amount of humour can also save your credibility.

By now, it should be clear to everyone, that the power of Brain & Behaviour insights lays not in sounding smart. Understanding the how and why behind behavioral change interventions can save you much trouble.

What’s behind psychological backfiring

While there can be several explanations, one is that people don’t like to be biased. We tend to think of ourselves as objective and rational. If an intervention is too obtrusive or unnatural in a given context, the audience is likely to rebel by showing the opposite behavior.


Stibe, A., & Cugelman, B. (2016, April). Persuasive backfiring: when behavior change interventions trigger unintended negative outcomes. In International Conference on Persuasive Technology (pp. 65-77). Springer, Cham.

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About Neurofied

Neurofied is a behavioral science company specialized in training, consulting, and change management. We help organizations drive evidence-based and human-centric change with insights and interventions from behavioral psychology and neuroscience. Consider us your behavioral business partner who helps you build behavioral change capabilities internally.

Since 2018, we have trained thousands of professionals and worked with over 100 management, HR, growth, and innovation teams of organizations such as Johnson & Johnson, KPMG, Deloitte, Novo Nordisk, ABN AMRO, and the Dutch government. We are also frequent speakers at universities and conferences.

Our mission is to democratize the value of behavioral science for teams and organizations. If you see any opportunities to collaborate, please contact us here.


Clara Vetter

Combines the art of storytelling with the science of behavioral psychology & neuroscience