Living and Learning: Reproducing Beliefs in Selective Experience


Correspondence to: Ebba Elwin, Department of Psychology, Uppsala University, Box 1225, SE-751 42 Uppsala, Sweden. E-mail:


People's decisions shape their experience. For example, a recruitment officer decides between job applicants and cannot evaluate the suitability of rejected applicants. The selection decisions thus affect the content of the officer's experience of suitable and unsuitable applicants, and experiential learning is achieved from a selective sample of experiences. It is suggested that people's beliefs are sensitive to the content of the experienced sample, but the mind cannot adjust for the selectivity of the sample even when it results from the individual's own decisions. Two experiments with a recruitment task showed that incorrect prior beliefs survive experiential learning when the beliefs are reproduced and thus appear to be confirmed, in actual experience. When the task was to achieve high performance, incorrect prior beliefs persisted because they were reproduced in a smaller sample of selected job applicants. In contrast, when the task was focused on learning, a greater number of applicants were selected, and a more representative experience therefore revised incorrect beliefs. The actual content of the experienced sample is thus crucial for the persistence, as well as for the revision, of incorrect beliefs. Further, as predicted by the hypothesis of constructivist coding, when feedback was absent for rejected applicants, participants constructed “internal feedback” in line with the expectation that the rejected applicant was unsuitable. Thus, when fewer applicants were hired, participants came to believe that the actual proportion of suitable applicants was low. Finally, the implications for efforts to reduce bias and improve experiential learning are discussed. Copyright © 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.