Belief Perseverance

1.Intro: Belief Perseverance
2.Belief Perseverance Examples

1.Belief Perseverance

Why do we form our opinion on something that we do not quite understand and sometimes even hold on to it in the face of evidence-based information that disproves it?

Scientific truths are generalizable, repeatable, shareable and constant, like the sphericity of the Earth and the law of gravity. However, if they are in conflict with the established doctrines, even if they are ungrounded, those who believe in the pre-established orthodoxies often vehemently refuse to accept the scientific evidence in order to preserve their legitimacy and sense of pride.

Today, as regards political debates, be they Trump’s policies, Brexit, or the rise of populism in Euro and elsewhere, it seems that this coagulation of one’s subjective belief when confronted with objective reality and facts has manifested in the public sphere more candidly than ever before, given the crises of liberal democracies that have frequently been debated in the media (The Economist, 2018).

Psychologists call this phenomenon “belief perseverance”, whereby a pre-established belief is maintained in the face of new evidence that contradicts and disconfirms the subjective belief (Kleinmuntz, 1968, pp.17-52; Anderson, 1983; Anderson, 2007, pp.109-110; Kahneman, 1982, p.144). Heated debates of this nature are often held in reference to abortion, evolution and religion, amongst other analogously contentious topics.

Not only do such beliefs tend to persist, but also become strengthened even further when concrete evidence is presented to debunk them, and those phenomena are known as the backfire effect  (Silverman, 2011; Nyhan & Reifler, 2010). Belief perseverance is the manifestation of irrational behaviour that constitutes the law of human nature as a psychological coping mechanism of cognitive dissonance in the event of disconfirmed expectations.

2.Belief Perseverance Examples

An early study of belief perseverance was conducted by psychologists who joined a UFO cult professing that the world would come to an apocalyptic end on December 21, 1954 (Festinger et al., 1956). Even after the prediction was disproved, however, most believers, who were previously convinced of the prophecy, still firmly clung to their faith.

Meanwhile, another researcher conducted an experimental study where half of the participants were led to believe arbitrarily that they performed well on a social perceptiveness task, while the other half was made to believe that they performed poorly (Anderson, 2007, p.110; Ross et al, 1975). Later, all participants were told that the evaluation of their performance was distorted by the researcher. They were presented with the concrete evidence encompassing sheets of paper with their scores printed on relative to other participants. After then, they were asked to assess how well they performed themselves. In theory, the initially given fake feedback should not influence their own assessment, as it was utterly arbitrary. However, when their own evaluations were collected, they showed the same biased trend that the participants were given at the beginning.


A number of researchers have hitherto investigated ways of mitigating belief perseverance. Although seemingly the most obvious solution is to ask people not to be biased, this has been proven extremely ineffective. Meanwhile, several effective techniques have been ascertained, and the most effectual one amongst them is a role-swapping technique, or so-called a “consider-the-opposite” strategy, whereby a person is asked to imagine and even explain, hypothetically, how the opposite belief might be warranted (Lord et al., 1984). This strategy, which was originally suggested by the English philosopher Francis Bacon in 1620, has been found to yield greater corrective effect than merely demanding people to be less biased (Lord et al., 1984). In the field of social psychology and cognition, this de-biasing technique is known as “counter-explanation” (Anderson, 2007, p.110).

In addition, Redlawsk et al (2010) found, based on their experimental study, that even though motivated reasoning tends to resist alteration when encountering information incongruent with it, the resistance does not continue ad infinitum, and in fact, there is a tipping point of some sort on a continuum, to which the anxiety level rises and the confidence level drops, and thereby people begin to update their initial evaluations more accurately, although the U-turn may not arrive instantaneously and their result is not yet definitive.


As far as the rethinking of liberalism and democracy is concerned, there is much to be learned from the above-mentioned remedy for belief resistance given the divisive rhetoric and fragmented societies surfacing recently in the West and elsewhere. In addition to that, at interpersonal levels, particularly in romantic relationships, they seem to be extremely useful in resolving all kinds of conflicts that crop up among people and between lovers.


Anderson, C.A. Lepper, M.R., & Ross, L. (1980). The perseverance of social theories: The role of explanation in the persistence of discredited information. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 39, pp.1037-1049. 
Anderson, C.A. (1983). Abstract and Concrete Data in the Conservatism of Social Theories: When Weak Data Lead to Unshakable Beliefs. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. 19(2): 93-108. doi:10.1016/0022-1031(83)90031-8.
Anderson, C.A. (1995). Implicit personality theories and empirical data: Biased assimilation, belief perseverance and change, and covariation detection sensitivity. Social Cognition, 13, pp.25-48.
Anderson, C.A., & Lindsay, J.J. (1998). The development, perseverance, and change of naive theories. Social Cognition, 16, pp.8-30.
Anderson, C.A. (2007). Belief Perseverance. In: Roy F, Baumeister. & Katherine D, Vohs. (eds.). (2007). Encyclopedia of Social Psychology. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Bacon, F. (1960)[1620]. The new organon and related writings. New York: Liberal Arts Press.
Festinger, L., Riecken, H., & Schachter, S. (1956). When Prophecy Fails: A Social and Psychological Study of a Modern Group that Predicted the Destruction of the World. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Kahneman, D. (ed). (1982). Judgement Under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Kleinmuntz, B. & Cattell, R.B. (ed). (1968). Formal Representation of Human Judgment. New York: Wiley.
Lord, C.G., Lepper, M.R., & Preston, E. (1984). Considering the opposite: A corrective strategy for social judgement. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 47, pp.1231-1243.
Nyhan, B., Reifler, J., Edelman, C., & Yan, R. (2009). The Effect of Semantics and Social Desirability.In: Correcting the Obama Muslim Myth.
Nyhan, B. & Reifler, J. (2010). Corrections Fail: The Persistence of Political Misperceptions. Political Behaviour, 32, pp.303-330.
Redlawsk, D.P., Civettini, A.J.W., & Emmerson, K.M. (2010). The Affective Tipping Point: Do Motivated Reasoners Ever ‘Get it’? Political Psychology, vol.31, No.4, pp.563-593. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9221.2010.00772.x
Ross, L., Lepper, M.R., & Hubbard, M. (1975). Perseverance in self-perception and social perception: Biased attributional processes in the debriefing paradigm. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 32, pp.880-892.
Silverman, C. (2011, June 17). The Backfire Effect: More on the press’s inability to debunk bad information. Columbia Journalism Review. Columbia University (NYC).
The Economist. (2018). The Economist at 175: Reinventing liberalism for the 21stCentury. Available at:

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