Belief perseverance is a phenomenon in which an individual maintains their belief or attitude even when faced with conflicting evidence or new data.
This occurs when individuals look for information that confirms what they already think while ignoring or dismissing any opposing evidence.
For example, if someone is convinced that their preferred sports team is superior to others, they may tend to only seek out favorable news articles and statistics that support their belief, rather than considering any negative reports that might challenge it.
This phenomenon can lead to a ‘bubble’ of information where individuals only accept views that confirm their opinions and ignore conflicting perspectives. In extreme cases, belief perseverance can create an echo chamber effect where individuals only communicate with others who share similar beliefs, creating a cycle of reinforcement and entrenching these biases further.
Definition of Belief Perseverance
Belief perseverance is a cognitive process whereby an individual maintains their belief or attitude even when faced with counter-evidence or new data.
This phenomenon is related to confirmation bias, a psychological concept that describes how people tend to give more weight to information supporting their existing beliefs or ideas and often ignore the evidence against them (see also: belief bias).
According to Schneider and colleagues (2011),
“…belief perseverance means that people tend to maintain their initial ideas or beliefs despite exposure to disconfirming ideas” (p. 370).
At a physiological level, belief perseverance occurs when individuals selectively pay attention to certain cues and ignore others to maintain the consistency of their beliefs.
Research has indicated that the process may involve the amygdala, which is a group of nuclei situated in the brain (Kaplan et al., 2016).
This suggests that our brains are wired to scan for evidence that reaffirms our beliefs rather than objectively considering all possible perspectives.
At a neurological level, brain imaging studies have shown that belief perseverance involves specific areas of the prefrontal cortex (Asp et al., 2013).
This part of the brain is responsible for decision-making, and research suggests that it may involve in the process of maintaining beliefs despite counter-evidence.
Simply, belief perseverance is an automatic process that helps to maintain our initial beliefs and hypotheses in the face of contrary evidence.
10 Examples of Belief Perseverance
- Political bias: A person may search for information confirming their beliefs about certain political issues, overlooking evidence that challenges those views. So, if they already think that a certain political party is wrong, they may selectively seek out media reports and other information which reinforce this perspective.
- Intergroup bias: Individuals may use confirmation bias to find information reinforcing their pre-existing biases about members of a different group to maintain those prejudices. For instance, if someone already has a negative idea about a certain religion, they may only seek information confirming this belief.
- Gender stereotypes: People may selectively remember information about the other gender that confirms their biases, such as assuming all men are aggressive or that women are overly emotional.
- Quality of life judgments: People often make decisions based on their own experiences and values, regardless of statistical data or expert opinion that might suggest another conclusion. For instance, if someone already believes their hometown is the best place to live, they may selectively remember positive information about the city and ignore any evidence of its flaws.
- Consumer buying habits: Consumers often rely on brand loyalty when making purchases, even if they are presented with evidence of superior products from unfamiliar brands. So, if someone is already loyal to a certain brand, they may ignore any evidence that suggests it is inferior in some way.
- Beliefs about money and success: Individuals may acquire status symbols to reinforce their belief in the power of wealth while ignoring any cautionary tales that could challenge these beliefs. If someone believes that money equals success, they may selectively remember information supporting this idea and ignore the evidence.
- Cognitive dissonance: Cognitive dissonance refers to the condition where an individual holds two conflicting beliefs or thoughts and continues to believe in one or both of them despite the contradiction. For instance, a smoker may acknowledge that smoking is harmful to their health but still believe that smoking helps them to unwind.
- Media exposure: People tend to focus on news stories or messages which support their pre-existing beliefs, even if this means ignoring alternative sources or opposing points of view presented elsewhere in the media landscape. If you believe a certain political party is wrong, you may only pay attention to stories that agree with this opinion.
- Groupthink: Groupthink occurs when individuals conform to the opinions held by the majority without considering alternate points of view. So, if a group already has an established opinion, they may dismiss any evidence that conflicts with this shared belief.
- Stereotyping: Stereotyping is an example of belief perseverance where people assume characteristics are true for all members of a certain social group without actually exploring each individual’s personality traits in depth. For instance, if someone already thinks that all members of a certain ethnicity are “lazy,” they may selectively remember stories or data reinforcing this belief.
Types of Belief Perseverance
Today, researchers identify three main types of belief perseverance – self-impressions, social impressions, and naive theories (Lack & Rousseau, 2016).
Here is a brief overview of each:
Self-impressions refer to a person’s internal beliefs and attitudes, which they consider when forming opinions or making decisions (Lack & Rosseau, 2016).
For example, if a person believes that they are ‘good at math,’ then this belief may influence their decisions about whether or not to pursue advanced mathematics classes in school.
2. Social Impressions
Social impressions refer to how an individual’s beliefs and attitudes may be shaped by the opinions of others within their social circle, such as family members and friends (Lack & Rosseau, 2016).
So, your perception of a car may be influenced by your friend’s dislike for it, even if you had no prior experience with that car.
3. Naive Theories
Naive theories refer to beliefs people hold based on factual inaccuracies or misperceptions (Lack & Rosseau, 2016).
So, some people falsely believe that all sharks are dangerous, but only a small number of shark species threaten humans.
Regardless of the inaccuracy of these naive theories, they can still shape an individual’s decisions and behavior if they are not confronted with accurate information which challenges them.
Causes of Belief Perseverance
Causes of belief perseverance often include confirmation bias, selective memory, availability heuristic, and self-justification.
Here is a brief explanation of each of the common causes:
- Confirmation Bias: Confirmation bias is when people look for and understand information that supports their existing opinions, beliefs, or values while ignoring data or facts that contradict what they already think (Davis, 2020).
- Selective Memory: People may only recall and focus on information confirming their beliefs while disregarding information that challenges them. This selective memory can be caused by emotions such as fear or motivation, which may make us more likely to remember one set of information over another (Davis, 2020).
- Availability Heuristic: The availability heuristic is a mental shortcut in which people rely on how easily something comes to mind to make decisions or form opinions. When certain information is readily available, we tend to rely on it more for making decisions, even if there are better sources of data that could provide more guidance (Davis, 2020).
- Self-Justification: Individuals often justify their decisions and actions by constructing internal narratives explaining any evidence that goes against their prior commitments and beliefs. This tactic helps people preserve their self-image and protect them from confronting uncomfortable facts or difficult realities about themselves or the world around them (Davis, 2020).
Ways to Deal with Belief Perseverance
Overcoming belief perseverance can be challenging and necessitates being receptive to novel concepts, taking calculated risks, and having the bravery to question deeply ingrained beliefs.
Here are some ways to deal with belief perseverance:
1. Analyze Your Own Beliefs
The first step towards dealing with belief perseverance is to examine your own beliefs and ask yourself if they are based on facts or something else.
This can help you recognize and acknowledge any possible biases that might be affecting your thoughts and choices.
2. Seek Out Alternative Sources of Information
It is crucial to search for alternative sources of information that offer different perspectives or evidence contradicting your beliefs in order to genuinely challenge them.
This helps avoid confirmation bias and can open up new possibilities for understanding and exploration.
3. Keep An Open Mind
The most effective way to deal with belief perseverance is to practice keeping an open mind and accepting new evidence or arguments, even if they contradict your views or thoughts.
It’s also important not to become too attached to any particular idea as this can blind you from seeing potential counter-evidence, which could drastically change your opinion on the matter in question.
Belief perseverance means that individuals will cling to their existing beliefs despite evidence or arguments which may contradict them. It may include anything – from how we think to how we make decisions.
Belief perseverance is a natural phenomenon caused by confirmation bias, selective memory, availability heuristic, and self-justification.
For instance, individuals often justify their decisions and actions by constructing internal narratives which explain away any evidence that goes against their prior commitments and beliefs.
However, practicing open-mindedness and seeking out alternative sources of information can help combat belief perseverance and allow us to make more informed decisions.
Asp, E., Manzel, K., Koestner, B., Denburg, N. L., & Tranel, D. (2013). Benefit of the doubt: A new view of the role of the prefrontal cortex in executive functioning and decision making. Frontiers in Neuroscience, 7. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnins.2013.00086
Davis, T. (2020). Forensic psychology. New York: Bloomsbury Publishing.
Kaplan, J. T., Gimbel, S. I., & Harris, S. (2016). Neural correlates of maintaining one’s political beliefs in the face of counterevidence. Scientific Reports, 6(1). https://doi.org/10.1038/srep39589
Lack, C. W., & Rousseau, J. (2016). Critical thinking, science, and pseudoscience: Why we can’t trust our brains. New York: Springer Publishing Company, LLC.
Schneider, F. W., Gruman, J. A., & Coutts, L. M. (2011). Applied social psychology: Understanding and addressing social and practical problems. London: Sage Publications.