Psychology in the Classroom #5 – Confirmation Bias/Belief Perseverance

Teaching psychology has taught me things about humans and learning and the classroom that I wouldn’t have experienced had it not been for the psychology curriculum. I think it important to pass some of these lessons along to teachers so as to improve their own instruction. Some of these lessons introduce particular theories of learning, some deal more with the human condition and how this may manifest itself in the classroom. All of these lessons are meant to be bite size; quick five minute reads that give you something to consider before your next class.

Today’s topic is actually two separate terms that often accompany one another. Confirmation bias is “the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms or supports one’s prior beliefs or values.” (1) Basically, you look for information that confirms what you believe and reject all other. Confirmation bias may lead to belief perseverance. This occurs when someone “maintains a belief despite new information that firmly contradicts it.” (2)

When I discuss this in class, I usually use the example of American politics and beliefs. Most republicans watch Fox News (or another outlet with similar beliefs) and ignore any other sources of news that may contradict their beliefs. Most democrats watch CNN (or another outlet with similar beliefs) and ignore any other sources of news that may contradict their beliefs. No matter which side of the political aisle we’re on, we like being right. We like being told we’re right. So, we watch news that affirms we’re right and ignore the other side.

Textbook confirmation bias.

And I know of very few people who earnestly take the time to watch or listen to the opposing parties’ side of the issue with the intent to understand and not to belittle or argue. This would be an awesome practice in fighting confirmation bias (and would, perhaps, help us to understand each other a little bit better?). And, unfortunately, when there is evidence that our side of the issue is wrong, we usually don’t change our tune. Instead, we dig our heels in or change the topic or attack the person and not the issue.

This is belief perseverance.

How does this apply to the classroom?

Once we have an idea or belief about the students (or teacher) in our class, it’s difficult to change our opinion. We begin to only see behaviors that confirm our beliefs about that person or people and (consciously or unconsciously) miss any contrary actions. These beliefs may begin to influence our actions towards these people, tarnishing relationships and harming the impact of instruction. And even when we see/hear that the person we either may have a very high or low opinion of has acted to the contrary, we may see it as an anomaly and our beliefs may persevere.

Now, I don’t typically see confirmation bias and belief perseverance in student work; they want to be right and if they understand the way they are solving a problem is incorrect, they will want to change to get it right.

I do, however, see confirmation bias and belief perseverance with teachers quite often. We want to believe we are doing the best for our students and this causes us to ignore evidence that what we’re doing might not be optimal for learning. A teacher may ignore evidence that a learning styles survey at the beginning of the semester and designing instruction to accommodate all learner’s preferred style of learning is not a fruitful endeavor for teacher or learner (more about this subject here). Rather than contemplate that what we once thought we knew about learning is no longer supported by evidence, we persevere with our already established beliefs. Not good.

Whether confirmation bias and belief perseverance shows up through our judgements of people in the classroom or how we instruct, it is certainly not optimal for the learning environment. Often, the best way to combat these two biases is through being aware of them and reflecting on our thoughts and actions. And perhaps asking those you trust around you if they’ve ever known you to demonstrate confirmation bias and/or belief perseverance.

Where do you see confirmation bias and/or belief perseverance in the classroom?

How can you fight against confirmation bias and belief perseverance?


3 thoughts on “Psychology in the Classroom #5 – Confirmation Bias/Belief Perseverance

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  1. You, and others, might want to look at work by Theo Wubbels and Mieke Brekelmans about how students very quickly form impressions of their teachers and how perseverent these beliefs are. One starting point might be:
    Two decades of research on teacher–student relationships in class
    T Wubbels, M Brekelmans – International Journal of Educational Research, 2005

  2. I require my students to present a view that does not support their position in their discussion questions.

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