Learning From Mistakes Is Harder Than We Think

We cling to our misconceptions more than we'd like to admit

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“Often mistaken, never in doubt.” That wry phrase describes us all more than we’d like to admit. The psychological study of misconceptions shows that all of us possess many beliefs that are flawed or flat-out wrong — and also that we cling to these fallacies with remarkable tenacity. As a result, just hearing the correct explanation isn’t enough. Most methods of instruction and training assume that if you provide people with the right information, it will replace any mistaken information listeners may already possess. But especially when our previous beliefs (even though faulty) have proved useful to us, and when they appear to be confirmed by everyday experience, we are reluctant to let them go.

Donna Alvermann, a language and literacy researcher at the University of Georgia, notes that in study after study, “students ignored correct textual information when it conflicted with their previously held concepts. On measures of free recall and recognition, the students consistently let their incorrect prior knowledge override incoming correct information.”

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It’s what our mothers called “in one ear and out the other.” We have to actively disabuse ourselves or others of erroneous conceptions, and research from cognitive science and psychology points the way. Although much of this research concerns misguided notions of how the physical world works, the techniques it has produced can be used to correct any sort of deficient understanding. Here, three ways to make that new information push out the old:

Highlight the mistaken notion. The simplest way to correct mistaken notions is to point them out as the accurate information is being presented. In a 2010 article in the International Journal of Science and Mathematics Education, researcher Christine Tippett offers an example from a science book for children: “Some people believe that a camel stores water in its hump. They think that the hump gets smaller as the camel uses up water. But this idea is not true. The hump stores fat and grows smaller only if the camel has not eaten for a long time. A camel can also live for days without water because water is produced as the fat in its hump is used up.” Note the three-part structure: the misapprehension is described, declared false and replaced by an accurate version. Although such “refutation text” is very effective in debunking misconceptions, Tippett notes, it’s rarely used in informational books for children or in textbooks for older learners.

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Issue an advance alert. For more deeply embedded beliefs that resist simple clarification, teachers, managers and other leaders can ask people to “activate” these prior beliefs, then instruct them to elaborate ways in which the correct explanation differs from their current conviction. For example, Alvermann and a co-author conducted an experiment in which students in an introductory physics class were asked to draw, and then explain, the path a marble would take if shot from a tabletop. The investigators’ instructions contained this advice: “If you thought that the path the marble would take would be straight down, straight out and then straight down, or straight out and then curved down, your ideas may be different from what the laws of physics would suggest. As you read the following text, be sure to pay attention to those ideas presented that may be different from your own.” The students who were “forewarned” with these instructions, the authors note, “showed marked improvement in learning information that conflicted with their existing knowledge.”

Create a confrontation. For the most tenaciously held beliefs, it may be necessary to stage an intervention. In a 2002 article in the American Journal of Physics, researchers from the University of Washington note that “students often finish a standard introductory course or an advanced undergraduate course on relativity with some fundamentally incorrect beliefs.” It’s frequently not enough for instructors to point out the discrepancy between learners’ convictions and the way things actually work, they note; learners have to perceive this discrepancy themselves, at which point they’ll be motivated to resolve it. The Washington researchers designed tutorials in which students were led to confront the fact that they held two mutually exclusive ideas, one mistaken and one correct (in this case, about the concept of time in special relativity). The students then were helped to discard naive beliefs and fully embrace scientific ones. The key is creating an uncomfortable sense of cognitive dissonance; only then are we willing to trade our private versions of reality for something that looks more like the real world.

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Peace_2_All like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

Hmmm... Seems to explain the misunderstandings of the Monotheists(Christian, Jewish, Muslim, etc...) and their lack of an ability to update their belief systems in the face of updated factual information.

Maybe... some of these *interventions* could be utilized on them?


dgdoesstuff like.author.displayName 1 Like

@Peace_2_All  :)  You don't just say "somebody should use them", you use them! 

"Some people believe that a being superior to themselves likes to keep close watch on human genital activity. But this idea is not true. The only people watching you when you do things in your bedroom is yourself and anyone you've let into the room with you..." 

"Some people believe that a deity of some sort condones blowing up buildings. But this idea is not true. The tendency for Arabs to enjoy blowing up buildings can actually be traced to rapid economic shifts in the 1950s. Islam is just a culture effect caught in the middle..."



DeweySayenoff like.author.displayName 1 Like

@Peace_2_AllInasmuch as I'd love to think they could, I think they already know the real truth, but instead are in denial - which is different.  The article uses a learning environment as a basis in which to implement these techniques in the face of a preference for the inaccurate information.  Also, the inaccurate information comes to the fore during the course of teaching, which can then be addressed.  Coming at someone who is already in denial about the validity (or it's lack) of their faith without them being willing to learn in the first place makes the task of addressing inaccuracies in their preconceptions impossible.

I've called this denial "willful ignorance", where people willfully reject that which doesn't fit their preconceptions regardless of its merits.

Christianity's long-running battle against the teaching of evolution is a prime example of this.  No matter how much they want to believe otherwise, the facts prove Christianity is unfounded.  There never was a garden of Eden.  There never was a snake, an apple and "original sin".  There never was a single man and a single woman as the progenitors of our race.  All of this is proven through the science we have learned since these mythologies were written.

And original sin is the foundation of Christianity because it is the justification for having a savior in the first place.  The entire old testament was simply setting up the back-story - cherry-picked from the Torah -  for the coming of the savior.  But without original sin, there's nothing to be "saved" from.  No need for a savior.  No need to be redeemed.  No need to believe in one to get to where we go when we die (and there's no credible evidence that we go anywhere at all when we die).  

The basing of Islam and Judaism on the same biblical accounts of creation causes the same problem for them credibility-wise.  If they are the repositories of absolute truth, then their truth is flat-out wrong.  The biblical account of creation is disproved by observed science.

It used to be that a "better" justification for belief was needed in order to supplant the established religions of the day.  We call those religions "mythologies" today, and few believe in them.  But on an absolute scale, they're all equally absurd.  And they all suffer from the fracturing of dogma that every religion suffered from throughout the course of human history.  No one could keep the lies straight or live with them.

It's a very poor way to run a universe.  You'd think an omnipotent being would do a better job of making sure we knew what was what.  That is, if one existed in the first place, of course.

But in the end, sadly for the religious types, there is one thing which precludes the utilization of any of these teaching techniques to correct misconceptions.  Religion destroys a person's ability to think rationally, logically and reasonably.  It's the only communicable psychosis known to mankind and the destruction of the higher brain functions is merely one of many symptoms that these poor folk are afflicted with.  They shut down their thought centers, preferring instead to be told what to think.  They become intellectually lazy and almost never look things up themselves.  But above all, they become ardently, militantly and/or violently closed-minded.  One has a better chance of cracking Ft. Knox naked than of penetrating a mind that will not open.

So they remain in active denial, fighting against anything that encroaches on their preconceptions. They do this because their entire reality is built upon a foundation of lies and myths, and the reality the real world resides in is a lot colder, harsher and cruel than anything they can imagine.  But it's what we do live in.  

Education is based on the notion that those being taught want to learn in the first place.  The ardently faithful want to do nothing that upsets their applecarts - least of all be educated in the way the world really works.  That takes more mental effort than they're willing to expend (or in many cases CAN expend).  Without that willingness to listen, let alone learn, no technique will be effective in teaching them how to face life like an adult instead of a sheep.



What is this "factual information" you're referencing?


@RoccoJohnson @Peace_2_All 

@RoccoJohnson --- It was my bad... I actually went on a bit too far accidentally.

Should have stopped with "and their lack of an ability(typically) to update their belief systems."

By the way... never heard back from you on the "porn" article that I responded to you on?



@RoccoJohnson @Peace_2_All 

@RoccoJohnson  --- Hey Rocco!  Good to hear back from you.  Very interesting perspective, given your job as a therapist.  Looks and sounds like you have a pretty good handle on what's going on.

I'm curious though... when you talk of "porn as a major catalyst or primary reason, etc..." really isn't that more of a *symptom* of much deeper/core issues?

Curious to your opinion... 



@Peace_2_All @RoccoJohnson

Hey Peace,

Sorry I didn't write back to you about your reply to my comment about counseling people with porn problems in their relationships, but here goes.

You're right, by the time I see couples, if porn hasn't been the primary reason for their relationship discord it has at least been a contributing factor, and generally a significant one. I'm seeing more couples all the time where the issue of porn has become the primary catalyst in their relationship difficulties, and although I haven't charted any statistics I'm finding it is pretty evenly split across age boundaries, however I can only speak of the people I see, not of greater society. I would say, however, that I believe porn negatively effects far more relationships than is readily apparent, as most couples won't choose to seek out counseling for it.

On the other hand, I believe you're probably right that many couples have managed to incorporate porn into their relationships in a way that works for them, however I have not personally talked to anyone who has, but if it's working for them there's no real reason they would tell me about.