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What is Belief Perseverance?

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  • Written By: Henry Gaudet
  • Edited By: A. Joseph
  • Last Modified Date: 06 November 2016
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Belief perseverance is the tendency to cling to ideas even when confronted with evidence to the contrary. This resistance might cause people to hold onto any sort of belief or opinion when the belief is shown to be unfounded or has even proved to be completely untrue. In some cases, this delusion can provide the self-belief needed to face new challenges, but belief perseverance also can prevent the honest appraisal needed for making good decisions.

People face and dismiss contradictory evidence on a daily basis. For instance, if a man who believes that he is a good driver receives a ticket, he might reasonably feel that this single incident does not prove anything about his overall ability. If, however, a man who has caused three traffic accidents in a month believes that he is a good driver, it probably can be said that belief perseverance is at work.

Research into belief perseverance has identified three categories of belief that might be involved. Self-impressions might understate or overstate actual qualities or abilities in the individual. Social impressions relate to specific individuals and qualities these people possess. Naive theories are impressions of the way the world works, including social groups and stereotypes, religious tenets, home remedies and expectations of the future.

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A psychological phenomenon called confirmation bias is a major factor in belief perseverance. Confirmation bias is a preference for information that supports current beliefs. This bias gives unwarranted weight to supporting facts while dismissing or discrediting ideas that contradict current beliefs.

Studies in this field typically involve providing subjects with information that is later discredited. For example, subjects might be given a test. Half of the subjects are initially told that they did well, and the other half are told that they did poorly. These subjects are later told that the tests were altered and that they had actually been tested on their reactions to success or failure. A list is presented, showing the subjects who would be told that had succeeded and those who would be told that they had failed, proving that what the subject were first told had nothing to do with performance.

After this presentation, subjects are asked to rate their actual performance. Even though the earlier assessment has been completely discredited, most of the subjects will hold onto this rating. Those who had been told that they did well generally rate themselves higher than normal, and those who initially were told that they did poorly will rate themselves below par. This phenomenon has been shown in numerous studies.

Awareness of belief perseverance does not seem to offer much protection. Alerting subjects by asking them for unbiased opinions does not appear to alter the results. Even when people are made explicitly aware of belief perseverance and asked to consider opinions in this light, beliefs are likely to remain unchanged.

One technique that is effective in countering this bias is to consider the opposite. When asked to present a counterargument, the individual must consider information that was previously dismissed. The result is a more thoughtful, unbiased opinion.

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anon957140
Post 5

@ysmina - Re: lawyers and belief persistence. I went to law school after my first two degrees, so I'd already had quite a bit of life experience and academic training.

I found my legal training was excellent in giving me the skills to discern facts and to stick to those no matter what. Refocusing one's bias towards the facts was the only goal, and once you got that, then it really didn't matter to the ego. The ego wasn't in the running or it re-orientated itself in the service of the overarching goal.

It's been a tremendous and positive shift. So many issues are so much clearer. The only trouble is having to deal with the majority of people and institutions that don't think like lawyers and whose needs to cling to palpably erroneous beliefs and/or entrenched fantasies overwhelm and eradicate any good they believe they're doing.

anon359215
Post 4

@ysmina: I think it has more to due with lawyers and law students being trained to do so. You are much more prepared in a debate or case when you can anticipate the opposing force's actions.

I think in society today, there's a greater pressure to never admit you're wrong, and that to not have a solid position on something indicates weak will. If you have an opinion, and then change it based on newer evidence, you 'waffled' or 'flip-flopped' and it's seen negatively. There's safety in staying with the group you initially sided with, ignoring anything brought against your belief.

ysmina
Post 3

I wonder if lawyers or law students are less prone to the belief perseverance phenomenon than others. I have friends in law school and they're constantly preparing arguments and counterarguments.

turquoise
Post 2

@SarahGen-- Religion has nothing to do with belief perseverance.

Belief perseverance is our tendency to ignore new information that doesn't confirm what we already believe. It's like a filtering mechanism of the brain.

There are various explanations as to why this happens, but I think that it has to do with the structure of the brain and also the psychology of the person. Either the brain or the psyche is unable to adapt to new and contrasting information. I think we do this to protect our psychology from trauma or depression. Because if we were to suddenly realize and accept that a belief that's central to our worldview and personality is absolutely false, we will fall into confusion and insecurity. So we continue to believe what we believe.

SarahGen
Post 1

When I first heard this term, I thought that it had to do with persevering belief and faith in God. This is actually a good thing and something that God tests us with. We need to hold on to our faith regardless of what happens to us. Even if we're going through a trying time, a true believer is said to persevere his or her belief in God and the belief that God is just.

Of course, confirmatory bias is something else altogether.

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