Explain the Opposite

Posted on 06 Jul 2009 13:12

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By Eric Troy
originally puplished at www.MaxCondition.com

You know what this is even if you haven't heard the term. You've come across it many times. You may not be a geek like me who reads psychology texts in his spare time, but I can guarantee you’ve seen it. Many times, in fact. And if you've posted on fitness related web-sites as much as I have you've seen it hundreds of times.

I am referring to belief perseverance; the psychology term for something that is innate to ALL of us. Yes, you can fall victim to it as well.

Belief perseverance is the tendency to stubbornly cling to one's beliefs even in the face of overwhelming evidence discrediting that belief. It is not always a bad thing. You have a right to it, in fact.

Nine times out of ten, I believe that a Bodybuilding.com thread is a waste of my time. I have many instances to back up that notion. Therefore, if I come across some threads that are useful should I abandon my belief that the bb.com forum is a circus? Probably not.

What if someone takes the time to painstakingly search through the forum to present me a solid 30 examples of useful threads? Should I then change my belief? Well, I'd have to ask myself if I have enough tolerance for aggravation to find the diamond in a mountain of coal on a regular basis. And I'd have to conclude that I do not. It is in my own best interest to cling to my opinion even if that opinion is not always justifiable. Just as if I do well on a math test I probably should not come to the conclusion that I am a math whiz.

Clearly though, my dislike of a certain forum is of minor importance to those around me and one would find it hard to prove that this dislike would damage me in any way. Let alone others. It is also not clear-cut how much my belief should change given the evidence of 30 good threads from hundreds. This is often the case with health and fitness related subjects as well. Often these beliefs are part of a larger belief system, so changing one part can undermine that system.

Removing a brick from one's belief system, thereby threatening its collapse, causes a great deal of cognitive stress and social embarrassment. So the next time you want to flame the "noob"…put yourself in his or her shoes for a moment and think about your own belief system.

And remember, it is not always necessary to change our beliefs. We can modify them as new information becomes available.

Or, we can defer belief until more evidence becomes available. The absence of belief has become a taboo concept in our society. Belief itself is seen as a virtue, even in the absense of evidence, where lack of belief has become synonomous with 'emptyness' or 'shallowness' even though to most rational thinkers blind belief simply means someone is more comfortable in a dark room fool of false shadows than in the light of day. As Thomas Jefferson said:

Ignorance is preferable to error; and he is less remote from the truth who
believes nothing, than he who believes what is wrong.

But these vague challenges to belief are not what I want to talk about. Sometimes people fanatically cling to beliefs even after the initial information that led to them has been COMPLETELY discredited. They will ignore the evidence or attempt to discredit it. They will misinterpret it to suit their initial belief. They will manufacture false information; often unconsciously. It all comes down to the same thing: They will heroically defend and protect their belief despite unassailable disconfirming evidence.

How can this harm us?

The little ways are obvious: Stubbornly refusing give up useless supplements, for instance, is at least harmful to our wallet. And if we rely on quick fix solutions based or misplaced belief, we may ignore the more important big picture, thus impacting our goals in the long term.

But there can be even more dangerous results.

One type of belief perseverance involves self impressions. This persistence of self impression is a primary psychological consideration. A trainee's beliefs about their ability, for instance, can create a very strong psychological barrier on performance. And there are more harmful beliefs that people have about their body. What starts out as belief about one’s body image: too fat, too skinny, not muscular, etc. can develop into a full-blown body dismorphia. This is a serious and prevalent problem today and it can start with something that is innate to all of us: belief perseverance.

A couple of years back, the “extreme stretching” fad was making its way around the bodybuilding forums. It was even given a scientific sounding name: fascia stretching. Based on quack science concerning the “fascia bag” surrounding muscles. The idea was that your muscles are nothing more than a bunch of sausage stuffed into a skin. They can only grow so much because the bag is too small. Therefore if you stretch, tear, and enlarge the bag…you will get hyuuuuge! The evidence? Somebody hung some weights from birds' wings and left them there for a long time. And the breast muscles enlarged.

To get huge you had to use “extreme” stretching. Doesn’t sound safe? Don’t worry. The fascia stretching crowd explained that you couldn’t get injured using static stretching very easily because the stretch reflex could be “avoided” by slowly moving into the stretch. And as long as you stretched very slowly your muscles would safely lengthen like a piece of taffy. Basically, they believed the same myth about static stretching that many people do: static stretching cannot injure you, only dynamic stretching can. Or something to that effect.

Needless to say, I reacted very strongly to the word extreme being attached to stretching. I found myself in numerous debates in which I presented huge amounts data on muscle physiology and showed clearly that this practice was not only scientific crap but was very dangerous.

But to very little avail. The perpetrators of this stretching fad were popular and considered bodybuilding authorities. The trainees spreading this practice had bought the explanation for how it worked and rationalized to themselves how it must be true. No matter how hard I worked that initial impression and rationalization could not be shaken off despite my OVERWHELMING evidence that it was hare-brained and dangerous. This is belief perseverance at work and shows how we can believe to our own detriment.

To a novice and even to those who consider themselves advanced, it is possible to fall into the trap of belief perseverance. It’s happened to me and to you. And it will happen again. So how to we combat it?

It’s very simple.

Explain the opposite.

Whenever you are presented with a rationalization as to why a certain thing is true simply explain to yourself why the OPPOSITE could be true. Investigate it, think on it, and come up with what is called a counter explanation. This practice will prevent the original rationalization from becoming cemented into a persistent belief and you will be left with the process of considering the facts from a more objective standpoint.

You will be surprised just how flimsy most rationalizations can be and how easily they can be overturned by a counter explanation. It doesn’t even matter if the counter explanation turns out to be true, only that it is a convincing alternative based on the facts at hand.

1. Myers, David G. Social Psychology. 4th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1993
2. Baumeister, R. F., and K. D. Vohs, eds. "Belief Perseverance." Encyclopedia of Social Psychology. Thousand Oaks: Sage, 2007. 109-10.
3. Schneider, Frank W., Jamie A. Gruman, and Larry M. Coutts, eds. Applied Social Psychology - Understanding and Addressing Social and Practical Problems. Thousand Oaks, Calif: SAGE Publications, 2005.
4. Bordens, Kenneth S., and Irwin A. Horowitz. Social Psychology. Mahwah:


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