Backfire effects

Filling the pail

There is a gap between intention and effect. For some, intent is enough. If only we are pure enough of heart then all will be well. Realists like me, however, want to know about the effect. Yes, I understand that school children marching against climate change have virtuous intentions, but what do they actually want to achieve and how do they propose to achieve it?

This is an important point because good intentions are not enough. Sometimes, good intentions simple do not translate into a positive result. Worse, they can even backfire, exacerbating the problem.

I have been interested in backfire effects in education since I first heard about the Cambridge-Somerville youth study. In the early 1940s, a group of at-risk boys were assigned mentors. The boys were happy with the mentoring programme, but when compared with a control group of similar boys who had not participated in the…

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