Abstract and concrete data in the perseverance of social theories: When weak data lead to unshakeable beliefs.
Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 19, 93-108.
The perseverance effect-the finding that people cling to their initial beliefs more strongly than appears warranted-has been demonstrated in a wide variety of settings. The existing explanation of the effect implies that beliefs based on concrete data should be more resistant to challenges than beliefs based on abstract data. The present studies compared the amount of belief perseverance when the beliefs were initially based on either abstract or concrete data. Subjects examined either two case histories (concrete date) or a statistical summary (abstract data) suggestive of either a positive or a negative relationship between fire fighter trainees' level of preference for high risk and their subsequent success as firefighters. These data sets were equated for the initial strength of beliefs they induced. Subjects were then thoroughly debriefed about the fictitious nature of their initial data. Subsequent assessments of subjects' personal beliefs about the true relationship revealed (a) significant levels of theory perseverance both immediately and 1 week later; (b) significantly more perseverance in the concrete data conditions, both immediately and 1 week later. Experiment 2 revealed that subjects frequently engage in causal processing spontaneously, especially when examining concrete data. Overall, the data suggested that memory for initial data did not contribute to the abstract/concrete effects, but that the generation of general, causal explanations did contribute to the stronger perseverance of theories in the concrete conditions.
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