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"Smart people (like smart lawyers) can come up with very good explanations for mistaken points of view."

- Richard P. Feynman, Physicist

"There is a danger in clarity, the danger of over looking the subtleties of truth."

-Alfred North Whitehead

January 31, 2011

Irrational Persistence of Belief

Humans have a tremendous capacity to resolve conflicting and competing thoughts and evidence. When watching individuals confess to crimes and then later attempt to explain away both the evidence against them and the confession, I can’t help but be reminded of what Nietzsche once wrote: "I have done that, says my memory. I cannot have done that, says my pride, and remains adamant. At last, memory yields.”

Human beings have the ability to distort their views of reality in the direction that fulfills their desires. The tendency for people to not look for evidence that disfavors one’s preconceived ideas, and if they find evidence that disfavors their preconceived ideas, the tendency to find a way to disregard it, is part of confirmation bias as discussed in an earlier blog entry.

Researchers have shown that people maintain incorrect beliefs about things despite overwhelming evidence showing that their beliefs are incorrect. This tendency is called irrational persistence of belief.

Researchers have stated: “The irrational persistence of belief is one of the major sources of human folly, as many have noted. We tend to hold to our beliefs without sufficient regard to the evidence against them or the lack of evidence in their favor.”[i]

We have all explained the evidence and arguments against someone’s position, and then have heard the person say, “Whatever, I still believe my position is correct.” Irrational persistence of belief is combated by remaining open to counter-evidence and criticism of one’s ideas, including being able and willing to do self-critiques of one’s ideas—and then changing one’s position, if warranted. Rigid defensiveness about one’s ideas should signal a possible irrational belief.[ii]

One of the determinants of irrational persistence of belief relates to how people think about how they should think. Some beliefs about thinking lead to poor decision-making, such as the belief that changing one’s mind is a symptom of weakness.[iii] Flip-flopping on an issue because it is politically expedient to do so is one thing. Changing one’s mind in light of new evidence, or in light of a better understanding of the evidence, is a whole other thing. Maintaining a steadfast opinion, regardless of its wrongfulness, is not a virtue; but is a sign of poor thinking.

Decisions makers should attempt to be open to all sides of an argument, and to be aware of our tendency to want to continue to believe in our already formed opinions—regardless of the evidence against them. We need to fight our desire for not wanting to be confused by the facts.

[i] Baron, Jonathan, 2008, Thinking and Deciding, Cambridge University Press, New York, New York, p. 203.

[ii] Ibid. p. 203.

[iii] Ibid. p. 213.

The views expressed in this blog are solely the views of the author(s) and do not represent the views of any other public official or organization.

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