What Is Belief Perseverance? Definition and Examples

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Belief perseverance is the tendency to maintain one’s beliefs even in the face of evidence that contradicts them. We see this tendency with all kinds of beliefs, including those about the self and others, as well as beliefs about the way the world works, including prejudices and stereotypes.

Key Takeaways: Belief Perseverance

  • Belief perseverance is the tendency to cling to one’s beliefs even when presented with information disproving them.
  • There are three kinds of belief perseverance: self-impressions, social impressions, and social theories.
  • Belief perseverance is difficult to overcome, but learning about the existence of this bias and thinking of explanations that support an opposing belief can help reduce it.

Belief Perseverance Definition

If you’ve ever gotten into a conversation where you’ve attempted to change someone’s belief based on your knowledge of facts, only to have them refuse to consider the validity of the information you’ve presented, you’ve encountered belief perseverance in action. People have a natural tendency to cling to their pre-existing beliefs, even when new information is provided that proves those beliefs wrong. In other words, beliefs persevere. This is something we see regularly today in debates about climate change, criminal justice, and immigration. Once someone has adopted a belief, even if the evidence for it is weak, it’s very difficult to change it.

Moreover, these beliefs don’t have to be based on first-hand experience. Beliefs can be learned indirectly as well. For example, a little girl believes all math teachers are mean, because before she started going to school, her older brother told her so. Once she started school, she encountered a math teacher who was nice. However, rather than letting go of her belief that math teachers are mean, she dismissed the nice teacher as either an exception to the rule or simply having a good day.

Belief perseverance is often confused with confirmation bias, but they aren’t the same thing. A confirmation bias is a bias in which people seek out and recall information that supports their preconceived beliefs. In contrast, belief perseverance doesn’t involve using information to confirm a belief, but the rejection of information that could disprove it.

Types of Belief Perseverance

There are three types of belief perseverance.

  • Self-impressions involve beliefs about the self. These can include everything from beliefs about one’s looks and body image to one’s personality and social skills to one's intelligence and abilities. For example, an individual may be thin and attractive but may believe that they are overweight and ugly despite ample evidence to the contrary.
  • Social impressions involve beliefs about other specific people. These people can include those one’s closest to, like a mother or best friend, as well as people they only know through media, like a famous actor or singer.
  • Social theories involve beliefs about the way the world works. Social theories can include beliefs about the ways groups of people think, behave, and interact, and encompasses stereotypes about racial and ethnic groups, religious groups, gender roles, sexual orientations, economic classes, and even various professions. This type of belief perseverance is also responsible for beliefs about political and social issues, including national security, abortion, and health care. 

Research on Belief Perseverance

Numerous studies have been conducted on belief perseverance. In one of the earliest studies, researchers asked female high school and college students to categorize suicide notes as real or fake. Each participant was told their categorizations were either mostly accurate or mostly inaccurate. Despite being told during the study’s debriefing that the feedback they received about the accuracy of their categorizations had been made up, the participants continued to believe what they were told. So, those that were told they’d categorized the notes accurately continued to believe they were good at judging real suicide notes from fake ones, while those who were told they categorized the notes inaccurately believed the opposite.

In another study, participants were provided with two case studies that either supported or didn’t support a connection between risk taking and success as a professional firefighter. Some participants were told that the case studies they read were false, while others weren’t. Regardless, participants beliefs about the relationship between risk taking and firefighting persisted, even when the evidence was completely discredited. 

Causes of Belief Perseverance

In general people are motivated to maintain their beliefs. This is especially true if people’s beliefs are more intricate and thought out. For example, in the second study mentioned above, the researchers found that when they had participants write out an explanation for the supposed relationship between risk taking and firefighting, the perseverance of their belief in this relationship was stronger when their explanations were more detailed.

So the simple act of providing an explanation for one’s beliefs may lead it to become more ingrained, regardless of any evidence to the contrary. This is because even if an individual has been told there is evidence that discredits a belief, every reason they've come up with to explain that belief hasn't been discredited.

There are several psychological factors that help explain belief perseverance as well.

  • One process that leads to belief perseverance is the availability heuristic, which people use to determine how likely an event or behavior might be based on how easily they can think of past examples. So if someone negatively judges their ability to give a successful presentation at work, it may be because they can only think of the unsuccessful presentations they gave in the past. Yet, it’s important to keep in mind that the individual’s assessment via the availability heuristic is subjective and based on how memorable their past presentations were to them.
  • Illusory correlation, in which one believes a relationship exists between two variables even though it doesn’t, will also lead to belief perseverance. For example, maybe an individual had a negative experience with a teenage employee at a store and from that single instance, determined that all teenagers are lazy and rude. This relationship may not exist, but because the example is salient in the individual’s mind, they will maintain this belief about all teenagers.
  • Finally, data distortions happen when one unknowingly creates opportunities for their beliefs to be confirmed while ignoring times when their beliefs are disproven. So if an individual believes all teenagers are lazy and rude, and therefore behaves in a way that encourages lazy, rude behavior every time they encounter a teenage employee, they will end up reinforcing their own belief about teenagers. Meanwhile, they may ignore instances when teenagers are energetic and friendly.

Countering Belief Perseverance

Belief perseverance is hard to counteract but there are some ways to reduce it. Learning about the existence of belief perseverance and recognizing that it’s something we all engage in is the first step towards being able to overcome it. One technique that can be used to counter belief perseverance, counterexplanation, involves asking an individual to explain why the opposing belief might be true.

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