Keywords:  Belief Perseverance, Conceptual Conservatism, When Theory Fails, Resistance to Conceptual Change, Open-Mindedness, Human Irrationality, Emily Dickinson, "Get Up and Bar the Door," "The Start Beast," "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," "Tartuffe," "Candide," The Country of the Blind."  

Belief Perseverance in Literature


The brain within its groove

Runs evenly and true;

But let a splinter swerve,

‘T were easier for you

To put the water back

When floods have slit the hills,

And scooped a turnpike for themselves,

And blotted out the mills

                                                                                      Emily Dickinson

SUMMARY: Belief perseverance can be defined as the human tendency to cling to convictions long after these convictions have suffered decisive refutations. This tendency differs from stubbornness and closed-mindedness. The ubiquity and centrality of belief perseverance in human affairs can be demonstrated by culling examples and rediscoveries of this failing from the writings of educators, political historians, psychiatrists, and historians of science. A few counterintuitive laboratory studies likewise confirm the existence and vigor of this failing. Belief perseverance is significant for several reasons, and it is probably traceable to several causes. Owing to the synergy between science and literature, examples and analysis of belief perseverance in literature (i) provide further evidence for the import of belief perseverance in human affairs, (ii) give additional insights about the nature, causes, consequences, and potential cures of this human failing, (iii) improve our understanding of literature, ourselves, and society, (iv) show that belief perseverance has not escaped the notice of some creative writers, (v) may prompt readers to undertake a systematic survey of belief perseverance in world literature, and, (vi) may inspire and inform new literary works.

This essay seeks to (i) establish the ubiquity and importance of belief perseverance in human affairs, (ii) provide insights about the nature, causes, consequences, and potential cures of this human failing, (iii) improve our understanding of literature, ourselves, and society, (iv) show that belief perseverance has not escaped the notice of some creative writers, (v) prompt readers to undertake a systematic survey of belief perseverance in world literature, and (vi) inspire and inform new literary works.

Nature of belief perseverance

In this essay, belief perseverance refers to the tendency of human beings to cling to their convictions long after these convictions have suffered decisive refutations.1

Owing to the comparative obscurity of the subject, we need to begin by demarcating belief perseverance from other human failings. To be sure, in real life, stubbornness, closed-mindedness, belief perseverance, and other human proclivities are often inextricably intertwined. Still, for the sake of analysis, they must be clearly distinguished.

Stubbornness (or obstinacy, or pigheadedness) means tenaciously adhering to a belief, goal, or course of action. Although it is possible to stubbornly hold on to correct beliefs or actions, stubbornness often implies unreasonably and willfully sticking to mistaken beliefs or actions, often with the aim of defying someone, saving face, or pleasing oneself.

The ancient parody below captures the essence of stubbornness. In this case, both husband and wife probably suspect that their behavior is irrational. Still, they are willing to pay just about any price in order to win their ludicrous bet.

Get up and Bar the Door

It fell about the Martinmas time,
And a gay time it was then,
When our goodwife got puddings to make,
She's boiled them in the pan.

The wind so cold blew south and north,
And blew into the floor;
Quoth our goodman to our goodwife,
"Gae out and bar the door."

"My hand is in my household work,
Goodman, as ye may see;
An it will not be barred for a hundred years,
If it's to be barred by me!"

They made a pact between them both,
They made it firm and sure,
That whosoe'er should speak the first,
Should rise and bar the door.

Then by there came two gentlemen,
At twelve o'clock at night,
And they could neither see house nor hall,
Nor coal nor candlelight.

"Now whether is this a rich man's house,
Or whether is it a poor?"
But never a word would one of them speak,
For barring of the door.

The guests they ate the white puddings,
And then they ate the black:
Tho' much goodwife thought to herself,
Yet never a word she spake.

Then said one stranger to the other,
"Here, man, take ye my knife;
Do ye take the old man's beard,
And I'll kiss the goodwife."

"There's no hot water to scrape it off,
And what shall we do then?"
"Then why not use the pudding broth,
That boils into the pan?"

O up then started our goodman,
An angry man was he;
"Will ye kiss my wife before my eyes!
And with pudding broth scald me?!"

Then up and started our goodwife,
Gave three skips on the floor:
"Goodman, you've spoken the foremost word,
Get up and bar the door."

In this essay, closed-mindedness refers to unwillingness to consider actions or beliefs different than one's own.2 A couple of royal examples will help clarify this term. According to the ancient Buddhist sage Nagasena, kings usually do not listen to viewpoints different than the ones they hold, and are apt to inflict punishment on those foolhardy enough to disagree with them (Ikeda 65). Shakespeare's King Lear, when we first meet him, provides one example of such closed-minded behavior. After Lear unjustly disowns his daughter Cordelia, the Earl of Kent (hitherto Lear's trusted advisor), tries to change Lear's mind. Lear cuts Kent short and warns him not to "come between the Dragon and his wrath." When Kent persists in voicing his outrage at Lear's unrighteous and self-destructive conduct, Kent is severely punished. Throughout this tragic encounter, one thing is clear: Lear is as committed to a re-examination of his conduct as the ordinary lemming is committed to reconsider his suicidal onrush to the sea.

The husband and wife in the Door poem are undoubtedly stubborn, yet they are neither closed-minded nor conceptually conservative. We could, however, accuse the goodman of closed-mindedness had his wife tried to convince him to change his mind, and had he refused to listen. We could accuse him of belief perseverance had she advanced conclusive arguments in favor of the position that he (and not she) should close the door, had he heard her out, and had he still failed to change his mind.

Let me try to clarify the distinction between stubbornness, closed-mindedness, and belief perseverance with one additional example. "There was . . . a difficulty," comments Bertrand Russell, "with Galileo's discovery of Jupiter's satellites."

There had always been seven heavenly bodies . . . and seven is a sacred number. . . .   On this ground the traditionalists denounced the telescope, refused to look through it, and maintained that it revealed only delusions. . . . Galileo wrote to Kepler wishing they could have a good laugh together at the stupidity of "the mob"; the rest of his letter makes it plain that "the mob" consisted of the professors of philosophy, who tried to conjure away Jupiter's moons, using "logic-chopping arguments as though they were magical incantations."

Now, the men who refused to look through Galileo's telescope can be charged with stubbornness and closed-mindedness, but not with belief perseverance. Belief perseverance in this case would have entailed being unconvinced of the existence of Jupiter's satellites after discerning the validity and stupendous magnifying power of the telescope, after repeatedly and reliably seeing these satellites through the telescope, and after meticulously reviewing Galileo's astronomical data (which conclusively showed that these satellites exist).

Crossdisciplinary Examples and Claims of Belief Perseverance

Because belief perseverance is not yet part of textbook lore, and because it runs counter to conventional beliefs about human rationality, it is still one of those things that must be experienced to be believed. For that reason, it has probably been independently rediscovered countless times. To demonstrate the critical importance of belief perseverance in human affairs, I shall begin by citing a few such apparent rediscoveries:

The main hindrance for the search for truth is probably the inability to abandon a present belief and adopt a better one when it comes along" (Elbow 184).

Men occasionally stumble over the truth, but most of them pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing happened (Winston Churchill).

For every society that shook itself to pieces in a rash effort to advance too fast, history can point to a dozen that perished of intellectual torpor, of arteriosclerosis of the brain  . . .  nor is there any more fatal cause of social catastrophes than the stubborn conservatism that clings to old ideas and methods long after the changes of circumstances have antiquated them. If civilization destroys itself in the next war . . . it will be because the old men who make war and peace (and bungle both!) have not the faith and flexibility of mind to abandon an ancient pastime when it becomes too dangerous. . . .  New truth always requires time and sustained effort to take root, and to outgrow the old prejudices that cumber the ground; if we relax our vigilance, we flop back into our old habits of belief. (Schiller 18-9, 131-2)

During his years of imprisonment, Russian novelist Alexander Solzhenitsyn came across a well-read, disenchanted revolutionary. Solzhenitsyn was still under the spell of the Lenin-worship rituals of that period, and wouldn't heed the old man's pleas to critical thinking. Years later, Solzhenitsyn drew from this the following generalization: "One thing is absolutely definite: not everything that enters our ears penetrates our consciousness. Anything too far out of tune with our attitude is lost, either in the ears themselves or somewhere beyond" (Solzhenitsyn 194).

Belief perseverance has often been invoked to explain specific historical occurrences. For instance, before the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, according to a former special assistant to the president for national security affairs (U.S.), no one seriously considered a warning to Japan's rulers that they could no longer put off the bitter pill of surrender. Sustained consideration of such a warning

would have required a reversal of the most deeply ingrained of all the behavior patterns of the Manhattan Project, the commitment to secrecy. . . . The secrecy that had begun with a proper concern not to arouse Hitler's interest had become a state of mind with a life and meaning of its own, so deeply ingrained that anyone who had asked . . . just why it was a secret now . . . might have had to wait for the answer. It was a secret now because it had been a secret throughout the war. . . It is no accident that the two men to raise the question of warning directly with Truman . . . did not begin with any ingrained assumption that continued secrecy was somehow vital to success. (Bundy 76)

Many other historical episodes can be interpreted in a similar light. General Joffre, the French Commander-in-Chief at the outset of World War I, was convinced that Germany would attack his country by the most direct route, through Alsace and Lorraine. When the Germans attacked through Belgium, he perceived the invasion as mere diversionary tactics. It was only after the hospitals were overflowing with casualties, after Joffre went north to look for himself, and after the Germans came perilously close to conquering Paris, that Joffre let go of this conviction (Strebel 3). Similarly, during that same war, most commanding generals were unable to abandon outdated offensive strategies (Tuchman).

Nikita Khrushchev tells us that he and his colleagues supported Stalin's reign of terror for years and years because they "were all convinced that Stalin could do no wrong" (Khrushchev 29). Stalin's blood-curdling actions--which his senior lieutenants often witnessed in close quarters--failed to induce belief change.

A particularly telling historical example involves the alleged messiah Sabbatai Sevi (Festinger, Riecken, and Schachter). Under threat of death, Sevi converted from Judaism to Islam in 1666. The shock of Sevi's apostasy should have shattered the faith of his orthodox Jewish followers in his messianism (Scholem 687). Yet, many failed to abandon that conviction.

The next example comes from psychiatry:

I didn't understand enough about them [patients] or how they thought even to begin to reach them. Listening to their stories, I wanted to offer advice. Why don't you escape from such a relationship? Leave your home, don't submit! Seek out others, expect more for yourself, I wanted to say. But I came to realize that they could not really hear me. They heard my words, perhaps even agreed with my recommendations. They had brain compartments to which new information, my suggestions for example, had easy access. But habits, learned emotional responses, and remembered expectations were buried deep in their brains that dictated the course of their lives. These patients, like victims of encephalitis, could not be awakened." (Alkon xviii)

Scientific biographies often illustrate belief perseverance. The historical record indisputably shows that "almost all of those firmly placed in the pantheon of science . . . were caught up in passionate efforts to achieve priority" (Merton 205). But most biographers approach their subject with the naive conviction that truly great scientists are only concerned with the truth, not with "petty" priority claims. As a result, biographers often claim that their hero was indifferent to establishing priority, "just before, as careful scholars, they inundate us with a flood of evidence to the contrary. This denial of the realities they report and then segregate is an instance of keeping intellect and perception in abeyance in the interest of preserving a prevalent myth about human behavior" (Merton 216).

Some observers (e.g., Conant; Kuhn) argue that belief perseverance plays a decisive role in science. History indeed shows that the revolutionary contributions of countless scientists have been rejected, ignored, or ridiculed, sometimes for decades and centuries (Beveridge; Campanario; Horrobin; Kuhn; Murray; Nissani, "the plight").

Originators of new ideas must often struggle against their own belief perseverance. "When the decisive facts did at length obtrude themselves upon my notice," says Joseph Priestly, "it was very slowly, and with great hesitation, that I yielded to the evidence of my senses" (Roberts 28). Vesalius says that he could not believe his own eyes when he found anatomical structures not in accord with Galen's descriptions (Beveridge 103). The intellectual biographies of luminaries such as Kepler (Koestler, "Watershed"), Mendel (Nissani, "Psychological;" Olby) and Newton (Steinberg, Brown, and Clemens), again point to the difficulty of conceptual shift. Koestler ("Act") coined the term snowblindness to refer "to that remarkable form of blindness which often prevents the original thinker from perceiving the meaning and significance of his own discovery. Jealousy apart, the antibody reaction directed against new ideas seems to be much the same whether the idea was let loose by others--or oneself" (216).

Experimental Investigations of Belief Perseverance

Given these countless allegations about the role of belief perseverance in human affairs, one would expect a plethora of experimental studies of its nature, causes, consequences, and potential cures.3 It so happens, however, that only a handful of social scientists has ever directed experimental attention to this fundamental human attribute. Here we can only touch upon a few key investigations.

Perhaps the best known study was conducted by Festinger, Riecken, and Schachter. These psychologists were not concerned with belief perseverance as such, but with testing a prediction of dissonance theory. Their study does, however, take belief perseverance for granted and provides a striking illustration. To test their theory, these investigators joined a cult whose members were convinced that the world was soon coming to an end. As expected, after the fateful day came and went, most believers still clung to their faith.

Ross and colleagues (reviewed in Anderson; Sanford) studied the perseverance of social theories. In one typical variation, subjects were provided with case histories which led them to believe in either a positive or negative correlation between a firefighter's stated preference for taking risks and her occupational performance. In this case, significant levels of belief perseverance were recorded even after subjects were appraised of the fictitious nature of the initial case studies from which their belief was derived.

Although the next study (cf. Timnick) was primarily concerned with computational estimates, it provides, as well, a striking confirmation of belief perseverance. In this study, mathematically competent teenagers and adults were asked to estimate answers to seven arithmetical problems, then to confirm their answers with a calculator. Unknown to them, the calculator was rigged to give unreasonable answers. In the first problem, most of the subjects deferred to the wily calculator, even when it was off by as much as 50% (e.g., saying that 252 X 1.2 = 452.4). About half the subjects went through all seven problems, one at a time, without once letting their own sensible estimates undermine their conviction that hand-held calculators are infallible.

In a recent series of studies, my colleagues and I have provided yet another striking demonstration of belief perseverance (Nissani, "A hands-on;" Nissani & Hoefler-Nissani). I first became interested in this problem when trying to trace the Soviet-American Cold War to its roots (Nissani, "Lives," Chapter 9). This attempt suggested, in turn, that one apparent cause--belief perseverance--lacked adequate empirical support. Here then was a surprising gap in both the historical and psychological literatures, and an exciting possibility of confirming the insights of some historians and novelists about the origins of self-destructive conflicts. I chose to close this gap by applying Milgram's methodology ("Obedience;" see also Nissani, "A Cognitive") to this problem.

In one of our studies, scientists from two major American research universities were given a false formula which led them to believe that balls are 50 percent larger than they really are. They were then asked to transfer water from two actual balls to a box. Their own measurements dramatically discredited the formula in both instances. While they were getting, say, four liters using the water transfer method, the formula led them to expect six. Under such circumstances, not one of these highly qualified participants flatly rejected the formula. In response to questions about the volume of balls, including balls identical in size to the ones they have been working with a short time before, over 90 percent based their replies on the false formula, not on the evidence of their senses.

This last result is counterintuitive. To begin with, social scientists and other survey respondents were unable to forecast actual performance. Indeed, social scientists tended to treat these observations with suspicion, suggesting, for instance, that there is something peculiar about the natural scientists who took part in this study. We too entertained similar doubts along the way. Fearing that the task might have been too demanding for humanities undergraduates, we recruited honor science undergraduates, then working scientists. When we failed to induce conceptual shift in science Ph.D.'s at one university, we recruited scientists from one of the best universities in the world, but still failed. Towards the end of our experiment, we did everything in our power to make escape possible, short of flatly telling the scientists that the formula was wrong, and yet they failed to reject it. To our chagrin and astonishment, we have also accidentally discovered that some scientists were unable to extricate themselves even when they knew the formula beforehand.

Implications of Belief Perseverance

The implications of these empirical studies, of everyday experiences, of the literary examples below, and of the countless independent rediscoveries of belief perseverance in just about every walk of human life, are grave:

1. To begin with, these observations tell us something important about ourselves; namely, that we are far more attached to our convictions than we think.

2. On the philosophical front, these observations undermine the popular belief in our rationality. Rationality, some scholars seem to think, is not something that we need to strive for, but that--like two-leggedness and smiles--is given to us. But, if rationality involves conceptual flexibility (cf. Baron, 172; Strike and Posner 211), and if we judge between competing hypotheses on "a first come first believe" basis, then we are not, at present, as rational as we would like to think.

3. "The desire to be right and the desire to have been right are two desires, and the sooner we separate them the better off we are. The desire to be right is the thirst for truth. On all counts, both practical and theoretical, there is nothing but good to be said for it. The desire to have been right, on the other hand, is the pride that goeth before a fall. It stands in the way of our seeing we were wrong, and thus blocks the progress of our knowledge" (Quine and Ullian 133). It should be noted that this applies to the intellectual progress of both individuals and of our species as a whole. Individually and collectively we could have been much farther along if we could just let go of improbable convictions (cf. Nissani, "Conceptual").

4. But it is not only intellectual progress that is at stake here. Belief perseverance may harm our physical and mental well being (cf. Alkon; Marris), contribute to the rise and fall of empires (cf., Nissani "Lives"), and jeopardize the future existence of our species (e.g., Asimov and Pohl; Nissani, "The Greenhouse;" Woodwell 4). Contemporary politics, some people say, is the "art of fooling the people" (Schiller; see also Huxley). How can most citizens in both ancient and modern democracies occasionally vote against their values and interests? Indoctrination, gullibility, and weakmindedness may help to explain how mistaken beliefs are acquired in the first place, but it is belief perseverance which explains their tenacity and which casts a dark shadow over humanity's future.

Causes of Belief Perseverance

Although we can be sure about the ubiquity and import of belief perseverance, its causes remain a matter of speculation. Here I can only mention a few tentative attempts of tracing this failing to its roots (see also Nissani "Conceptual").

The tenacity of convictions may be traced to the conservative impulse. Based on his studies of bereavement, Peter Marris argues that the process of abandoning a conviction is similar to the working out of grief. According to this view, in many seemingly diverse situations, change requires overcoming an impulse to restore the past. "The impulse to defend the predictability of life is a fundamental and universal principle of human psychology." Human beings possess "a deep-rooted and insistent need for continuity" (Marris 2). One extreme manifestation of this impulse is the frequent failure of people undergoing psychotherapy (e.g., anorexics, obsessive-compulsives, paranoids) to restructure their mistaken, dysfunctional, and painful viewpoints and habits.

Jonathan Baron (183) mentions another explanation. To survive and thrive, churches, nation states, and similar organizations must retain the loyalty of their members. To do so, they must convince their members of the veracity of the organizational creed "even though many outsiders will argue otherwise." Those organizations "that inculcate an ideology in which defense of one's belief is a virtue and questioning is a vice are the ones that are most likely to overcome challenges from outside." Most people in contemporary culture identify with one or more such organizations. Consequently, most people tend to be conceptually inflexible.

Such organizational pressures may be reinforced by the widespread, culturally-acquired, confusion between self-assurance and real knowledge. "Thus, when a news commentator criticizes a political candidate for waffling and being unsure (as might befit a good thinker faced with many of the issues that politicians must face), the implication is that the candidate is not expert enough to have figured out the right answers yet. Similarly, a person who adopts 'a know it all' tone of voice--speaking without qualification or doubt--is giving a sign of expertise in the matter at hand." (Baron 184; see also Popper).

I remarked earlier on the role of belief perseverance in the history of ideas. According to some historians, the process of conceptual change in science resembles Gestalt perceptual shifts (e.g., the difficulty encountered in seeing the hag as a young lady), adjustments to wearing inverted goggles (Stratton), or the identification of anomalous objects (Bruner and Postman, e.g., a red 6 of spades). The most difficult mental act, according to one science historian, is to re-arrange a familiar bundle of data, to look at it differently and escape from the prevailing doctrine (Butterfield, cited in Beveridge 102). According to this view, then, the difficulty of switching from one conviction to another--in science, experimental psychology, and elsewhere--is traceable to the difficulty of rearranging one's perceptual or cognitive field.

Belief Perseverance in Literature

Science has long exerted a powerful influence on literature. Creative writers often incorporate scientific insights into their short stories, novels, poems, and plays. They are often inspired and informed by such disciplines as psychology and evolutionary biology. A good science fiction writer, for instance, must be thoroughly conversant with the relevant science of his day. Jack London's The Sea- Wolf was, most likely, influenced by Darwin's ideas. Science, and especially psychology, exerted an even stronger influence on literary criticisms. Some literary critiques, for example, often draw upon the writings of social scientists such as Freud, Jung, and Marx.

Science and psychology, in their turn, have been often enriched by the insights of creative writers. "Dostoevsky," said Einstein, "gives me more than any scientist, more than Gauss" (cited in Murray 404). Long before Freud, Sophocles and Dostoevsky perceived the tension between fathers and sons. Science fiction has no doubt served as a source of inspiration and ideas to subsequent technological advances. Besides serving as a fountainhead of ideas, literature is sometimes used to gauge the validity of scientific insights. Psychological observations and insights, in particular, are tentative, and so it is comforting to know that creative writers have intuitively stumbled upon them.

There thus exists a synergistic relationship between psychology and literature in which either discipline is influenced and enriched by the other. It seems worthwhile therefore to examine a few literary examples of belief perseverance.

The Star Beast (Nicholas Stuart Gray). This little-known children's story can be quickly retold. Soon upon a time, following the explosion of an extraterrestrial spaceship, an injured, human-like, beautiful creature appeared at the doorstep of a farmhouse. This alien was lost and afraid, but driven to seek help by hunger and pain. The farmer and his wife treated it kindly and nursed it back to health. They then handed it over to the professors, elders, and priests. The professors placed him in a cage and studied him as if he were a rat or a monkey. Soon the slender alien learned to sensibly string many words and phrases together. One might have thought he knew what they meant--if one was silly. He tried to teach his academic jailers the superior language of the universe, but they jeered at him: parrot-talk! He tried to teach them logic, for which deed he had to endure resentment and blows.

The mathematicians were amazed at his mathematical prowess, but they got furious when he tried to impart his knowledge of advanced extraterrestrial math. When he tried to share the Master-Plan of the Universe with the priests, they called him wicked. When his jailers tried to force him to crawl on all fours, he refused. He was then sold to a circus where he tried to teach visitors, but they jeered at him. Despite his fear of fire, he was compelled, with the cracking of whips, to jump through fire hoops.

The alien was then sold to a touring animal-show, where he finally became sluggish and demoralized. He was next sold to a rich collector of rare beasts, who treated him inhumanely. Eventually he escaped to a nearby forest and was last seen weeping, looking in terror at rabbits and squirrels, and trying desperately to walk on all fours.

Setting cruelty and indifference aside, the professors and other earthlings in this story provide yet another vivid demonstration of belief perseverance. Even though the evidence conclusively pointed to the alien's superior intelligence and kindness, his learned jailers failed to shake the conviction that he was nothing more than a curious beast.

On first sight, the story appears as pure fantasy, and not only because it deals with extraterrestrials. Is it really possible, one might ask, to assume that the alien's highly educated jailers would overlook the erudition and grace behind the odd exterior? Yes, it is. Beyond the fantasy, there is here a literary affirmation of the reality and importance of belief perseverance (see also Milgram, "Cyranoids").

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (F. Scott Fitzgerald). This fantasy relates the story of a man born old and traveling backwards towards infancy. We first meet Benjamin Button, the hero of the story, in 1860, as a newborn infant in a delivery room. This infant is, in everything but chronological age, the quintessential old man. Among other things, the newborn Benjamin is full-grown, stooped, bearded, gray, and grumpily eloquent. His parents never once abandon their conviction that he is an infant. So poor old Benjamin is treated not as the old man he is but as the child he should have been, small-boy clothes, a baby-nurse, toy trains, and birthday parties included. Throughout Benjamin's long life, his relatives, friends, and associates never fully acknowledge what their eyes tell them, namely, that Benjamin, unlike any other man, animal, or plant they have ever seen, grows younger as the years go by.

"The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" can be viewed as a study in belief perseverance. Although Benjamin is a tangible exception to the rule that life proceeds from infancy to old age, he is never fully recognized as such, not even by himself.

Tartuffe4 (Moliere). In this classical play, a confidence man who goes by the name of Tartuffe endears himself to Orgon, a middle-aged wealthy Parisian. In short order, and despite Tartuffe's poverty, patent hypocrisy, and dubious past, he becomes Orgon's trusted friend and idol. Although Orgon's grown children, maid, brother-in-law, and young second wife see through Tartuffe's chicanery, Orgon ignores their advice, preferring instead to listen to Tartuffe's phony diatribes and to Madame Pernelle's (Orgon's mother) sympathetic views of the "holy" man. Even when presented with evidence that Tartuffe tried to seduce his wife, Orgon not only disbelieve his wife and son, but disowns his son for relating this incident. Orgon ascribes his family's conduct to jealousy, unkindness, and ingratitude, and makes up his mind to break his daughter's former engagement and marry her to Tartuffe, very much against her will. As if all this is not enough, he hands Tartuffe a legal deed to all his wealth. Only when Orgon sees Tartuffe actually trying to seduce his wife and hears him condescendingly portraying him as a gullible fool, is Orgon cured of his malady. Orgon's mother, Madame Pernelle, who was not a witness to this scene of attempted seduction and condescension, hangs on to her belief in Tartuffe even after her son tells her what he has just seen and heard. She only wakes up when Tartuffe attempts to dispossess her son of his home and belongings.

No doubt Orgon and his mother are foolish, gullible, stubborn, and closed-minded. But both, I have suggested elsewhere (Nissani "Conceptual"), are also conceptually conservative, for, despite strong evidence to the contrary, they do not readily abandon their faith in Tartuffe.

Candide (Voltaire). This novella can be interpreted as a parody of both optimism and belief perseverance. Like the philosopher Leibnitz, Pangloss (a character in this tale) is convinced that "everything is for the best in this best of all possible worlds." As the narrative unfolds, a series of calamities overtakes Pangloss and his friends. Among other things, Pangloss contracts syphilis, narrowly escapes an unjust death sentence, and endures slavery and hard labor. Although these reversals dent his optimistic armor, they never altogether crack it.

A Counter Example: The Country of the Blind. (H. G. Wells). In a world in which specialization is king (cf. Ortega y Gasset), it is not easy to fully grasp the meaning and significance of belief perseverance, let alone apply it to literature. In an effort to further clarify this concept, I shall examine one short story which does not exemplify belief perseverance.

In the 1904 (and better-known) version of this charming story, a young mountaineer miraculously survives a fall into a beautiful and fertile valley. The valley is surrounded on all sides by sheer cliffs, so he dares not risk a return to the outside world. All the residents of this valley are blind. They and their ancestors have lived there for countless generations, in total isolation from the outside world, and they know nothing of vision or of the function of the two shrunken sockets above their cheeks. Their other senses are more keenly developed than those of seeing people. They are kind, tolerant, and happy. They have adopted their lifestyle, and their little valley, to their needs.

On first seeing them, the young man pleasantly recalls Erasmus' saying that "in the Country of the Blind the one-eyed man is king." But this is not to be. Our hero fails to adjust to their lifestyle, for these people sleep in the day and work at night, and they live and often interact with each other in dark, windowless houses. Although they regard his talk about vision as so much nonsense, they allow him to demonstrate the practical utility of sight on a couple of occasions, in which task he fails. Following an abortive rebellion on his part, he reconciles himself to life on their terms, with a low social status for himself (engendered by his own clumsiness).

He falls in love. At long last, he is given the green light to marry--provided he consents to have his eyes surgically removed (for the doctors of this valley ascribe his remaining abnormalities to these strange organs). On the dawn before the operation, however, he cannot bring himself to sacrifice his vision for love and safety, and begins the perilous ascent from the valley. The story ends at sunset, with our hero exhausted, blood-stained and bruised, his future dim, but with his vision and soul intact, "lying peacefully contented under the cold stars."

In 1939, Wells changed the ending of this story. In this alternative new version, the blind ignore the seeing man's dire warnings that a sliding mountainside is about to annihilate their valley. Only the hero and his blind fiancee manage to escape death and live happily ever after in the outside world.

Neither version of "the Country of the Blind," nor Plato's cave fable (to which both versions bear striking resemblance), exemplifies belief perseverance. Belief perseverance could have been ascribed to the valley's blind residents--had they been given conclusive evidence for the existence, beauty, or utility of vision. Given what they know (and not what a seeing reader knows), the valley's residents have no reason for believing that eyes are useful, that mountains exist, let alone that mountains can come tumbling down. Rather, both versions beautifully underscore the difficulty of communicating across incompatible worldviews. Thus, both can be seen as fables of incommensurable paradigms and of the heart-rending plight of obscure innovators (Nissani, "plight"), while the second can also be saying that our species' indifference to powerless visionaries may one day precipitate its demise.


1. Belief perseverance involves convictions, not beliefs. A creationist who believes that the new neighbor at Apt. 3C is Sarah Smith is likely to change his mind upon seeing the name Sarah Schmit inscribed on her mailbox. However, even if given overwhelming evidence to the contrary, he is far less likely to let go of his conviction that the Earth was created some 6,000 years ago.

2. To avoid confusion, this essay confines the meaning of closed-mindedness to its literal sense of not allowing new ideas and arguments to enter one's mind. The second lexical meaning of closed-mindedness--unwillingness to change one's mind in face of excellent reasons for doing so--is here reserved to belief perseverance.

3. Assuming, of course, that editors of social science journals are interested in understanding the human condition, not in impressing each other and mistaking statistical rigor for meaningfulness: "The most prominent indicator of the crisis [in the social sciences] is the low wheat-to-chaff ratio in the glittering piles of research publications" (Sherif 201-3).

4. My discussion of Tartuffe is adapted from an earlier paper (Nissani "Conceptual").

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