Clinging to Discredited Beliefs: Understanding Obstacles to Learning

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A large body of research demonstrates the incredible power of initial conceptions, naive views, scripts, and stereotypes, that are the inevitable results of our naïve theories. Prior knowledge, the single most influential component in learning, enhances understanding when it connects well to the academically sanctioned, but hinders learning when in conflict with it. Theories contradicting existing beliefs are conveniently misinterpreted, treated as insignificant, or taken as valid only within the confines of classrooms. Belief-perseverance – persistence of known discredited beliefs - is ubiquitous to the point of serving as the ultimate evidence of the feebleness of our mind and the futility of formal education. My thesis is that neither is true.

This presentation suggests an explanatory model of belief-perseverance, which links basic cognitive adaptive needs (e.g., causality, coherence, and control of the environment) with the mental tools we brings to bear on our survival tasks. These tools, cognitive heuristics, create naive theories that contain misconceptions and false persistent beliefs that all students bring to class. The mind’s governing principles (cognitive economy, cognitive and emotive equilibrium, and ecological rationality) cause inevitable trade-offs between quantities of information, speed of processing, accuracy, and dissonance-avoidance, resulting in a costly maintenance of prior knowledge and inadequate long-term learning.

Our students resort to sophisticated (mostly subconscious) devices to in their effort to cling to prior, discredited theories. The resistance of these powerful devices to the best instruction of scientific theories to the contrary or to appeals to rationality or to fairness reduces learning outcome and frustrates teachers. I call to educators to avoid dismissing the phenomenon of belief perseverance as emotive, dispositional, or irrational. Understanding its sources and the cost of belief modification may result in devising ways to combat perseverance and enhance learning outcomes that are compatible with the workings of our minds.


Keywords: Belief Perseverance, Cognitive Economy, Emotive and Cognitive Equilibrium, Naive Theories and Misconceptions
Stream: Curriculum and Pedagogy; Student Learning, Learner Experiences, Learner Diversity
Presentation Type: 60 minute Workshop Presentation in English
Paper: , Clinging to Discredited Theories, ,


Dr. Leah Savion

Faculty, Department of Philosophy, Indiana University
Bloomington, Indiana, USA

Leah Savion is a member of the Philosophy and the Cognitive Science departments at Indiana University at Bloomington. She earned her Ph.D. in Philosophy at City University of New-York in 1989. Areas of professional interest range from Analytic Philosophy and Formal Logic, Cognitive Science and the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, to international folkdance, singing, and tennis.
Savion is frequently invited to provide faculty development workshops for higher education faculty locally, nationally, and internationally. For a partial list of publications and talks/workshops go to http://mypage.iu.edu/~lsavion. Current research topics include: (i) Psychologically and logically realistic models of rationality; (ii) Heuristics and Biases in Concept Acquisition, Retention, and Retrieval (iii) Belief Perseverance and self deception (iv) Naive Theories (v) Cognitive differences between Experts and Novices.

Ref: L09P0514