Belief Perseverance

Belief perseverance (also known as ‘conceptual conservatism’) is maintaining a belief despite new information that firmly contradicts it. Such beliefs may even be strengthened when others attempt to present evidence debunking them, a phenomenon known as the ‘backfire effect.’ For example, journalist Cari Romm, in a 2014 article in ‘The Atlantic,’ describes a study in which people concerned about the side effects of flu shots became less willing to receive them after being told that the vaccination was entirely safe.

Since rationality involves conceptual flexibility, 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.’

According to experimental psychologists Lee Ross and Craig A. Anderson, ‘beliefs are remarkably resilient in the face of empirical challenges that seem logically devastating.’ The first study of belief perseverance was carried out by Festinger, Riecken, and Schachter. These psychologists 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. When asked to reappraise probability estimates in light of new information, subjects displayed a marked tendency to give insufficient weight to the new evidence.

In another study, mathematically competent teenagers and adults were given seven arithmetical problems and first asked for approximate answers by manual estimation. Then they were asked for the exact answers by use of a calculator rigged to produce increasingly erroneous results. In reflecting on their estimation skills or techniques, about half the subjects went through all seven problems without once letting go of the conviction that calculators are infallible.

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 explained the truth, that no correlation existed between risk taking and performance. These authors found significant levels of belief perseverance in exit interviews.

In another study, subjects spent about four hours following 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.

Taken together, such experiments lead to a surprising conclusion: ‘Even when we deal with ideologically neutral conceptions of reality, when these conceptions have been recently acquired, when they came to us from unfamiliar sources, when they were assimilated for spurious reasons, when their abandonment entails little tangible risks or costs, and when they are sharply contradicted by subsequent events, we are, at least for a time, disinclined to doubt such conceptions on the verbal level and unlikely to let go of them in practice.’

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.’ 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 personal cognitive processes as well. ‘When the decisive facts did at length obtrude themselves upon my notice,’ said famed chemist Joseph Priestley, ‘it was very slowly, and with great hesitation, that I yielded to the evidence of my senses.’ Arthur Koestler coined the term ‘snowblindness’ to refer ‘to that remarkable form of blindness which often prevents the original thinker from perceiving the meaning and significance of his own discovery. Jealousy apart, the antibody reaction directed against new ideas seems to be much the same whether the idea was let loose by others–or oneself.’

The causes of belief perseverance remain unclear. Experiments in the 2010s suggest that neurochemical processes in the brain underlie the strong attentional bias of reward learning. Similar processes could underlie belief perseverance. Philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn 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. Sociologist Peter Marris suggested 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.’

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