Belief Perseverance

What Is Belief Perseverance?

Belief perseverance is the tendency to cling to one's initial belief even after receiving new information that contradicts or disconfirms the basis of that belief.

According to social psychological concept of belief perseverance, people tend to maintain their initial ideas or beliefs despite exposure to disconfirming evidence. They may discredit, ignore, misinterpret, or give the disconfirming information little weight, but the effect is the same in that their ideas or beliefs persist.

Classic Study of Belief Perseverance

Wegner et al., (1985) had college students (specifically named as “actors”) read 25 pairs of suicide notes and guess which one of each pair was genuine. Half of the actors received success feedback (24/25 correct) and half received failure feedback (10/25 correct).

While each actor was working, another student observed. Afterward, the actor and observer were informed that the feedback was not genuine; that is, it had been predetermined and did not reflect the actor’s actual performance. Then both the actor and the observer were asked to predict how well the actor would perform on an additional 25 trials.

Curiously, their predictions were not affected by learning that the feedback was false. Instead, both actors and observers predicted that “successful” actors would perform better than “failure” actors.

Their initial beliefs about the actors’ ability had persevered and led them to predict future behavior despite the evidence that their initial beliefs had been based on erroneous information. The participants’ failure to factor into their predictions the fact that the initial feedback had been predetermined is similar to what happens with the fundamental attribution error Opens in new window in which role of the situation is downplayed.

Belief Perseverance in Academics Settings

Unfortunately, belief perseverance also take place in the classroom. If you have used a word for many years to mean one thing Opens in new window, it may be difficult to learn a different or more specific meaning for it in a class. For example, psychology students often confuse “negative reinforcement” and “punishment” despite having encountered the terms since their first psychology course.

Teachers may also be prone to belief perseverance if they expect you to perform or behave in the same fashion that your older brother or sister performed or behaved for those teachers in the past.

In an academic example, Prohaska (1994) found that students with medium or low grade point averages (GPAs) were very prone to overestimate their future grades. Thus, despite their poor performance in the past, low-achieving students continued to believe that they would get good grades in the future.

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There is substantial literature dealing with popular misconceptions about psychology. Much of the work shows that taking a psychology course does not remove those misconceptions (Vaughan, 1977). When students have completed a course but still hold the misconceptions with which they entered the course, this problem illustrates belief perseverance.

Gardner & Darlsing (1986) administered a 60-item “test of common beliefs” (which were actually incorrect) to more than 500 students taking psychology courses (e.g., “To change people’s behavior toward members of ethnic minority groups, we must first change their attitudes”; “In love and friendship, more often than not, opposites attract”).

On average, students agreed with more than 20% of the misconceptions. The only significant drop in misconceptions occurred for students who had taken at least six psychology courses. Thus, it appears to take repeated exposure to disconfirming information for students to overcome belief perseverance. As an interesting aside, faculty members from other disciplines are also likely to hold misconceptions about psychology (Gardner & Hund, 1983).

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