Effective Reasoning and Prior Beliefs

Klaczynski and Narasimham demonstrated in a 1998 study that if children and adolescents are presented with evidence that contradicts beliefs they already hold, they will often ignore or reject the evidence, rationalize as to its real significance, or otherwise do whatever they can to hold on to their preconceived notions.

As educators, we can certainly see this in the classroom. I once had a student argue with absolute conviction that J. D. Salinger couldn’t have been “half Jewish,” because it’s impossible for someone to have two different religions. Even after I talked a bit about the interconnection of Jewish religion and Jewish culture, and another student in the class identified herself as half Jewish, the protester remained unconvinced.

The power of preconceived notions is also clearly demonstrated by the persistence of prejudice. I sometimes teach Banana Yoshimoto’s Kitchen in my 101 course, and am surprised by how, after reading such a detailed, culturally specific story about the complex inner life of a Japanese girl, non-Asian students will still refer to her as “Chinese” and trot out stereotypes about how meek and studious she is, when she is neither of those things.

Klaczynski and Narasimham did not include adults in this particular study as far as I know. I wonder whether adolescents are more or less likely to cling tightly to their previously held beliefs than adults are. Perhaps, the less life experience you have, the less opportunity you have had to have your beliefs challenged, the less contradictory evidence you’ve accumulated, and the less practice you’ve had in adapting your beliefs to accommodate new information. On the other side, you’ve also had less time to have your beliefs firmly entrenched, and Erikson would say that a healthy identity search would involve testing and perhaps rejecting the beliefs that have been handed to you wholesale by others (religious and political beliefs, for example.) It might therefore be true that adolescents and emerging adults have the potential to be more flexible in their belief systems, and more susceptible to other points of view.

One way or another, beliefs, like stages of cognitive development, are “old friends”; having them challenged is frightening, and letting go of them necessarily entails a sense of loss. We can’t assume that when students are presented with new information, they will assimilate it easily, especially if that information contradicts beliefs they hold dear.

The way I address the students, the material I present them with, and the tasks I ask them to do may either challenge or support their current beliefs, including beliefs they hold about themselves and who they are. I need to understand and acknowledge that, in my interactions with students, I am sometimes presenting them with evidence that contradicts dearly held preconceived notions. If I can be aware of and accepting of this, and honour the process they may go through in assimilating (or rejecting) what I give them, I will make the learning process more possible and my own emotional rewards much greater.

(This post was adapted from an analytical response to the following text:

Kail, R., Cavanaugh, J. C., & Ateah, C. A. (2006) Emerging Adulthood (Canadian ed.) Custom Edition of Human Development: A Life-Span View. Scarborough, Ont.: Thomson Custom Publishing.

I wrote the original analysis for an MEd course.)

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