Resistance to Belief Change (book)

You have probably experienced this. You are talking to someone who stubbornly refuses to admit that he is wrong. You give good arguments for your point of view and explain why the other person's point of view is not correct, but the other person stubbornly sticks to how he sees it. How is this possible? Why don't people just admit they're wrong? The book Resistance to Belief Change by Joseph Lao and Jason Young (2019) answers this question.


In the book, Lao & Young give many reasons for why we normally have resistance to changing our beliefs. By a belief, the authors mean a proposition (explicitly formulated or implicitly derived) that we think is true. Only when a belief is true (corresponds to reality) we speak of knowledge.

Beliefs are our mental representations, our interpretations, of the world. The more these mental representations correspond to reality, the more valuable they are. The more truthful a belief is, the better it enables us to adapt and deal with the world around us.

Networks of coherent beliefs

Our beliefs do not stand alone. They are normally organized in networks of coherent beliefs. Three characteristics of beliefs are important: coherence, centrality and embedding. Coherence describes how consistently the parts of a belief are related to each other and to other available information. Centrality of a belief refers to the degree to which a belief is central to your life. Embeddedness is about how strongly a belief is related to your other beliefs. Beliefs acquired at a young age are often more central and embedded and therefore more difficult to change. Often this applies to religious beliefs, for example.

Types of beliefs

There are different types of beliefs: concrete, abstract, metacognitive and subjective. Concrete (objective) beliefs relate to physical reality (for example: that is a dog). Abstract beliefs are about things that are not directly observable (for example about honesty, intelligence). Metacognitive beliefs are beliefs about beliefs and thinking (for example, how much evidence do I need to think something is true?). Subjective beliefs are based on our personal frame of reference (for example, it was a boring movie).

Conscious or unconscious

In addition, we can be aware of our beliefs but, strangely enough, also unaware. One of the reasons for the latter is that we consider the belief so self-evident that we are not or hardly aware of it. Unconscious beliefs can become apparent through the choices we make. Beliefs that we are not or hardly aware of are more difficult to change.

Importance of beliefs

Beliefs are very important in general. They determine how we interpret and perceive reality, what we expect and how we behave. Without realizing it, our beliefs are to a large extent the lens through which we look at reality. We interpret reality in a way that is consistent with our central beliefs. We also actively search for information that confirms these beliefs (this is called the confirmation bias).

Resistance to change in our beliefs

The more certain we are of our beliefs, the more embedded they are and the more central they are, the more likely we will resist information that contradicts these beliefs. If so, we can cherish our beliefs as treasured possessions that we try to protect from theft.

Reasons for inertia of our beliefs can be emotional, cognitive, social and physical. Emotional inertia is when we cannot let go of a belief because we are emotionally attached to it. Cognitive inertia is when changing a belief is unsuccessful because of how that belief is related to all kinds of other beliefs that we have.

Social inertia occurs when the pressure to conform and the fear of not belonging anymore prevents us from letting go of our beliefs. Physical inertia occurs when the structure of the neural networks in our brain prevents change of beliefs.

The importance of being able to change our beliefs

A certain stability in our beliefs is good. If our beliefs were extremely changeable, building knowledge would become very difficult and we would be hardly consistent and predictable to others. But our resistance to change in our beliefs is now often so high that it takes great effort to explore new, conflicting information and to adjust or transform our beliefs.

This prevents us from getting a more realistic picture of reality, which makes it more difficult to deal with this reality. At a collective level, this problem is even greater. The relative firmness of our beliefs can be a major reason for far-reaching political and religious polarization. When multiple groups face each other with unshakable but contradictory beliefs, we have a problem. A problem that we see all too often in the world today.

What can we do?

As individuals, we can help prevent such problems by raising epistemic standards. This means that we learn to assess information more critically before we accept it. In addition, we can increase our critical and logical skills. This requires an awareness that some of our beliefs are false. It is not so easy because we intuitively feel that all of our beliefs are correct! (This is the case by definition. If we thought a belief is false, we wouldn't have it.)

It is even more important to give systematic attention to these things early on in education and the way we raise kids. Beliefs acquired early in life are often difficult to change. Learning things which are not true at an early age creates unnecessary bumps for later. Teaching children how to evaluate truth claims at an early age can be an excellent investment into their development. If we do this on a large scale, social progress will also become easier.