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Volume 17, Issue 11;   March 15, 2017: Influence and Belief Perseverance

Influence and Belief Perseverance


Belief perseverance is the pattern that causes us to cling more tightly to our beliefs when contradictory information arrives. Those who understand belief perseverance can use it to manipulate others.
The 1934 rally of the Nazi Party in Germany

The 1934 rally of the Nazi Party in Germany, one of an annual series conducted from 1923 to 1938. The rallies were enormous, multi-day affairs, reaching nearly a million people by 1938. Speeches delivered at these rallies were intended to bond the people and the party. They featured military parades, martial music, speeches by political and military leaders, and multiple opportunities for attendees to salute the leadership and express agreement with the presented content. From the perspective of the phenomenon of belief perseverance, these events exploited the technique of using belief packages. By arranging for attendees to express support for some portions of the events, they arranged for them to affiliate with other portions of the events. And by distributing film of the events to the non-attending population in theaters afterwards, they created affiliation opportunities for what we would now call remote attendees.

Something analogous happens in all political rallies, though most modern rallies are free of militarism and doctrines of racial animus. Photo credit: Bundesarchiv, Bild 102-04062A / CC-BY-SA 3.0, courtesy Wikipedia.

Belief perseverance is the tendency to adhere to a belief despite receiving information that contradicts or disconfirms it. Numerous studies have demonstrated the phenomenon [Baumeister 2007]. It's real. Puzzling, but real. It's especially puzzling when we encounter it in knowledge workers, who tend to be skilled critical thinkers.

Still, with regard to beliefs about oneself — one's own talents, strengths, and positive attributes — we might expect a certain lack of objectivity. We might expect that same lack of objectivity with respect to to beliefs about specific people, especially those about whom we have strong opinions, favorable or not. But for beliefs about the subject matter of knowledge work, we expect more clarity of thought.

We might expect more, but we would be disappointed from time to time. To understand why, let's explore just one mechanism that can lead to belief perseverance.

Our culture values consistency. People want to see themselves, and want to be seen, as consistent. Changing one's views is something we want to believe we do sparingly, and only with good cause, in part, because we want to be seen as credible. Perhaps unjustifiably, we regard people who change their views easily or frequently as easily influenced, indecisive, impulsive, unfocused, or less than credible. When we receive information that threatens the validity of beliefs we've expressed publicly, we devote our energies to defending those beliefs, because our personal brand is at stake.

This line of reasoning suggests several tactics for influencing others. I regard the examples below as manipulative and unethical. I offer them only to enable readers to recognize them when others use them.

Preventing change
If you anticipate a change you want to prevent, arrange to have people make public statements in support of beliefs that make that anticipated change seem unwise. This tactic is most effective if people don't yet know about the change you anticipate.
Suppressing contrary evidence
Suppressing Changing one's views is
something we want to
believe we do sparingly,
and only with good cause
evidence that supports a change you anticipate, but which you want to prevent, can be ineffective unless you first arrange to have people express positions opposing the change. Then, when the evidence comes to light, they'll be motivated to reject it.
Using belief packages
To bind someone to a belief B1, arrange to have him or her express how belief B2, to which they are already committed, implies B1. After they express belief in the connection between B1 and B2, B1 becomes part of a package with B2, and the individual becomes committed to the package.

Although public statements of belief do tend to bind people to that belief, so does silence, because failing to object to another's expression of belief can seem to be agreement. If you cannot arrange for people to publically express their own views, having them silently listen, without objection, to someone else expressing their own views might be just as effective in triggering belief perseverance. Go to top Top  Next issue: Unanswerable Questions  Next Issue

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[Baumeister 2007]
Roy F. Baumeister and Kathleen D. Vohs, eds., Encyclopedia of Social Psychology, Thousand Oaks, California: SAGE Publications, Inc., 2007. Available from Amazon Back

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