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.
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.