Photo by Ryan Cryar

One of our human tendencies that can get us into trouble is reactivity – impulsive, often disproportionate, action taken in response to intense emotion. Backlash is a form of reactivity we’re vulnerable to being swept into that attempts to exact sanctions (social or otherwise) against someone or something that violates expectations or otherwise triggers aversion. Here are some real life examples of backlash, on a large and small scale:

  • After the 9/11 attacks there was a strong backlash against people presumed to be Muslim. The Civil Rights Division, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and US Attorneys offices have investigated over 800 incidents since 9/11 involving violence, threats, vandalism and arson as well as discrimination in employment, education, fair housing and public accommodations (US Dept of Justice)
  • There has been similar backlash against each step toward establishing human rights for marginalized groups throughout US history, including recent rollbacks of legal protections. In fact, the Capitol siege of January 6, 2021 is seen by some as backlash against the election of a leadership promising to expand rights and protections for immigrants, people of color, and LGBTQIA+ groups.
  • A 2018 study revealed that adults rated gender stereotype-violating children (especially boys) as less likable than their conforming peers. These ratings were an overt action in reaction to an emotional response that can have real world consequences.
  • A 2001 study found that strong resistance against nutrition messages and dietary guidelines was more common among those eating less healthful diets. It’s possible that feelings of blame and shame are being displaced onto an external target – a preference to “kill the messenger” over considering the message. As this sort of backlash grows, it can result in the discrediting of science and experts as we’ve seen in the wake of anti-mask and anti-vaccine movements during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Even mindfulness has experienced some backlash in its growing popularity. While skepticism and questioning assumptions are important for critical thinking and wise decision making, backlash is a form of acting out that often causes more harm than good. Acting out, according to the American Psychological Association, is “the behavioral expression of emotions that serves to relieve tension associated with these emotions”. We can discern backlash from constructive criticism or being an upstander, because it:

  • is fueled by unexamined strong aversive emotions.
  • disproportionately elevates rare or extreme cases and/or cites distorted or unverified data as damning evidence (usually because the attack is not well thought out).
  • serves to benefit the “backlasher” in some way (even if only to temporarily relieve painful emotions) and/or undermine the target, rather than working toward improvement or serving the greater good.

It’s tempting to assume that backlash happens simply due to exposure fatigue – we’ve heard this said about mindfulness and social justice issues. But, repetition alone isn’t sufficient to induce backlash. After all, we don’t get tired of beautiful sunrises, feeling loved or appreciated, or experiencing happiness because these tend to generate pleasant sensations. We also typically don’t lash out at something just because we’re bored with it – we simply move on. When backlash occurs, there is always an element of strong aversion in the mix, for which the target is seen as to blame (even if this connection is below the surface of awareness).

Sometimes backlash is deliberately fomented in others for secondary gain. Our negativity bias makes us attracted to headlines and statements with a negative spin or that alert us to some danger, so our reactivity makes us vulnerable to manipulation.

Mindfulness helps us become more aware of our inner experiences, which empowers us and expands our range of choices. With practice over time, strong emotions become a warning signal to slow down, pause to investigate, and plan our course wisely. It makes us less vulnerable to being used at our own expense to accomplish goals that may not be in alignment with our values. Instead of reacting impulsively, we can choose a response that is more likely to contribute to desired outcomes.

Resources

Patterson, R E, et. al. (2001). Is There a Consumer Backlash Against the Diet and Health Message? J Am Diet Assoc Vol 101, Issue 1, P37-41.

Sullivan J, Moss-Racusin C, Lopez M, Williams K (2018) Backlash against gender stereotype-violating preschool children. PLOS ONE 13(4): e0195503.

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