Belief perseverance

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Belief perseverance is maintaining a belief despite new information that firmly contradicts it.[1]

Since rationality involves conceptual flexibility,[2][3] belief perseverance is consistent with the view that human beings act at times in an irrational manner. Philosopher F.C.S. Schiller holds that belief perseverance "deserves to rank among the fundamental 'laws' of nature."[4]

Evidence from experimental psychology[edit]

According to Lee Ross and Craig A. Anderson, "beliefs are remarkably resilient in the face of empirical challenges that seem logically devastating."[5] Several experiments can be interpreted or re-interpreted with the aid of the belief perseverance concept.

When asked to reappraise probability estimates in light of new information, subjects displayed a marked tendency to give insufficient weight to the new evidence.[6]

Psychologists Festinger, Riecken, and Schachter joined a cult whose members were convinced that the world would end on December 21, 1954. After the prediction failed, most believers still clung to their faith.[7]

Lee Ross and Craig A. Anderson led some subjects to the false belief that there existed a positive correlation between a firefighter's stated preference for taking risks and their occupational performance. Other subjects were told that the correlation was negative.  Subjects were then extensively debriefed and given to understand that no correlation existed between risk taking and performance. These authors found that post-debriefing interviews pointed to significant levels of belief perseverance.[8]

In another[9] study, mathematically competent teenagers and adults estimated answers to seven arithmetical problems, then were asked to check their answers with a rigged calculator, e.g., a calculator yielding the result: 252 × 1.2 = 452.4 (it is actually 302.4). About half the subjects went through all seven problems without once letting go of the conviction that calculators are infallible.

In another study,[10] subjects spent about four hours following instructions of a hands-on instructional manual.  At a certain point, the manual introduced a formula which led them to believe that spheres are 50% larger than they are. Subjects were then given an actual sphere and asked to determine its volume; first by using the formula, and then by filling the sphere with water, transferring the water to a box, and directly measuring the volume of the water in the box. In the last experiment in this series, all 19 subjects held a Ph.D. degree in a natural science, were employed as researchers or professors at two major universities, and carried out the comparison between the two volume measurements a second time with a larger sphere. All but one of these scientists clung to the spurious formula despite their empirical observations.

In cultural innovations[edit]

Physicist Max Planck wrote that “the new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.[11] For example, the heliocentric theory of the great Greek astronomer, Aristarchus of Samos, had to be rediscovered about 1,800 years later, and even then undergo a major struggle before astronomers took its veracity for granted.

Belief perseverance often involves intrapersonal cognitive processes as well. "When the decisive facts did at length obtrude themselves upon my notice," says the great chemist Joseph Priestly, "it was very slowly, and with great hesitation, that I yielded to the evidence of my senses."[12]

In education[edit]

Students often "cling to ideas that form part of their world view even when confronted by information that does not coincide with this view."[13] For instance, students may study the solar system for months, do well on tests, yet continue to believe that lunar phases are caused by Earth's shadow.[14]

In literature[edit]

Belief perseverance appears to be incorporated in the writings of some poets and novelists.

One example is provided by F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button." In this short story, apart from chronological age, Benjamin is born as a full-grown, stooped, bearded, gray, and eloquent old man. Throughout his life, while he travels backwards towards infancy, neither Benjamin himself nor his relatives, friends, or associates ever acknowledges the fact that he grows younger as the years go by.

Other literary pieces that could be similarly interpreted include Molière’s Tartuffe and Voltaire’s Candide.


The causes of belief perseverance remain unclear.

Recent experiments[15] suggest that neurochemical processes in the brain underlie the strong attentional bias of reward learning. Similar processes could underlie belief perseverance.

Peter Marris[16] suggests that the process of abandoning a conviction is similar to the working out of grief. "The impulse to defend the predictability of life is a fundamental and universal principle of human psychology." Human beings possess "a deep-rooted and insistent need for continuity."

Thomas Kuhn[17] points to the resemblance between conceptual change and Gestalt perceptual shifts (e.g., the difficulty encountered in seeing the hag as a young lady). Hence, the difficulty of switching from one conviction to another could be traced to the difficulty of rearranging one's perceptual or cognitive field.

In quotes[edit]

The human understanding when it has once adopted an opinion draws all things else to support and agree with it. And though there be a greater number and weight of instances to be found on the other side, yet these it either neglects and despises, or else by some distinction sets aside and rejects. —Francis Bacon[18]

The most difficult subjects can be explained to the most slow-witted man if he has not formed any idea of them already; but the simplest thing cannot be made clear to the most intelligent man if he is firmly persuaded that he knows already, without a shadow of doubt, what is laid before him. —[1]Leo Tolstoy[19]

Man is not logical and his intellectual history is a record of mental reserves and compromises. He hangs on to what he can in his old beliefs even when he is compelled to surrender their logical basis. —John Dewey

Nor is there any more fatal cause of social catastrophes than the stubborn conservatism that clings to old ideas and methods long after the changes of circumstances have antiquated them. —F. C. S. Schiller[20]

The main hindrance for the search for truth is probably the inability to abandon a present belief and adopt a better one when it comes along. —"Peter Elbow[21]

The desire to be right and the desire to have been right are two desires, and the sooner we separate them the better off we are. The desire to be right is the thirst for truth. On all counts, both practical and theoretical, there is nothing but good to be said for it. The desire to have been right, on the other hand, is the pride that goeth before a fall. It stands in the way of our seeing we were wrong, and thus blocks the progress of our knowledge. —Willard V Quine and J. S. Ullian[22]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Baumeister, R. F.; et al., eds. (2007). Encyclopedia of Social Psychology. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. pp. 109–110. ISBN 9781412916707. 
  2. ^ Voss, J. F.; et al., eds. (1991). Informal Reasoning and Education. Hillsdale: Erlbaum. p. 172. 
  3. ^ West, L.H.T.; et al., eds. (1985). Cognitive Structure and Conceptual Change. Orlando, FL: Academic Press. p. 211. 
  4. ^ Beveridge, W. I. B. (1950). The Art of Scientific Investigation. New York: Norton. p. 106. 
  5. ^ Kahneman, D., ed. (1982). Judgment Under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 144. 
  6. ^ Kleinmuntz, B., ed. (1968). Formal Representation of Human Judgment. New York: Wiley. pp. 17–52. 
  7. ^ Festinger, Leon; et al. (1956). When Prophecy Fails. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. 
  8. ^ Anderson, C. A. (1983). "Abstract and Concrete Data in the Conservatism of Social Theories: When Weak Data Lead to Unshakeable Beliefs" (PDF). Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. 19 (2): 93–108. doi:10.1016/0022-1031(83)90031-8. 
  9. ^ Timnick, Lois (1982). "Electronic Bullies". Psychology Today. 16: 10–15. 
  10. ^ Nissani, M. and Hoefler-Nissani, D. M. (1992). "Experimental Studies of Belief-Dependence of Observations and of Resistance to Conceptual Change". Cognition and Instruction. 9 (2): 97–111. doi:10.1207/s1532690xci0902_1. 
  11. ^ Eisenck, Hans J. (1990). Rebel with a Cause. London: W. H. Allen. p. 67. 
  12. ^ Roberts, Royston M (1989). Serendipity. New York: Wiley. p. 28. 
  13. ^ Burbules, N.C.; et al. (1992). "Response to contradiction: scientific reasoning during adolescence". Journal of Educational Psychology. 80. 
  14. ^ Lightman, A.; et al. (1993). "Teacher predictions versus actual student gains". The Physics Teacher. 31. 
  15. ^ Anderson, Brian A.; et al. (2016). "The Role of Dopamine in Value-Based Attentional Orienting". Current Biology. 26. doi:10.1016/j.cub.2015.12.062. 
  16. ^ Marris, Peter (1986). Loss and Change. London: Routledge. p. 2. 
  17. ^ Kuhn, Thomas (1962). The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 
  18. ^ Nisbett, Richard; et al. (1980). Human Inference. Englewood Cliffs. NJ: Prentice-Hall. p. 167. 
  19. ^ Tolstoy, Leo. The Kingdom of God is Within You – via The Kingdom of God Is Within You at Project Gutenberg. 
  20. ^ Schiller, F. C. S (1924). Problems of Belief. New York: Doran. pp. 18–9, 131–2. 
  21. ^ Elbow, Peter (1973). Writing Without Teachers. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 184. 
  22. ^ Quine, Willard V.; et al. (1978). The Web of Belief. New York: Random House. p. 133.