« Realitybase anthology | Main | The other American Dream of rising incomes—Horatio Alger stories »

Why we acquire beliefs and refuse to change them

John Maynard Keynes concluded his magisterial General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money (1935) with these observations about the power and persistence of beliefs:

[T]he ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back. I am sure that the power of vested interests is vastly exaggerated compared with the gradual encroachment of ideas. Not, indeed, immediately, but after a certain interval; for in the field of economic and political philosophy there are not many who are influenced by new theories after they are twenty-five or thirty years of age, so that the ideas which civil servants and politicians and even agitators apply to current events are not likely to be the newest. But, soon or late, it is ideas, not vested interests, which are dangerous for good or evil.

Although Keynes did not expect those old enough to hold political power to change their beliefs, he expressed optimism that subsequent generations can and will adopt better ones. In contrast, the quotation from Josh Billings in the subtitle of this blog reflects a frustration with the slowness with which new ideas take hold because of the inability of old dogs to learn new tricks. To a large extent the purpose of this blog has been to confront prevailing beliefs with contrary facts to see what, if anything, would happen. In this post, I speculate a bit on why beliefs are so persistent. [UPDATE 10/15/2010: The Josh Billings quotation, which has been replaced, was "The trouble with people is not that they don't know but that they know so much that ain't so."]

By "belief" I mean any idea we are reluctant to change or re-examine. Such a belief may have been acquired via a rigorous analytical process based on measurements, by received wisdom or folklore, by experience, or in other ways. We may have forgotten the details of how and why we acquired the belief and be unable to explain it to others. A belief may have deep emotional importance such as religious dogma or be devoid of emotional content such as a belief that there are 50 States in the USA or that 8 x 9 = 72. A belief may be true or false, but either way we resist consideration of contrary proofs because we "know" we are right.

Perhaps the tendency to unchanging beliefs has evolutionary advantages, for example:

Aids Learning. Our minds seem to discern, create, and use patterns to see, hear, think, etc., and things that don't fit a familiar pattern are likely to be rejected or distorted.  Random facts like nonsense syllables are more difficult to learn and recall than facts that can be anchored to an existing body of knowledge.  If a new idea contradicts the existing knowledge, one may have to do a great deal of mental work to reorganize and/or prune old ideas in order to incorporate the new idea.

Constitutes Intellectual Capital. To the extent our beliefs derive from education and experience, they constitute part of our "intellectual capital," which increases our efficiency. We can make more decisions faster if we can plug a few facts into a template instead of having to start anew to solve a problem as though we'd never seen anything like it before. In large part, this is the difference between an experienced lawyer (or other professional) and a newbie.  A smart newbie given enough time can perhaps solve any problem that is presented, but the valuable professional is one who already has solved 80% of the problem by having worked through similar situations in the past. 

Minimizes the Discomfort of Uncertainty. Perhaps it is stressful to feel confused and in a strange and meaningless situation with no patterns that seem familiar.  Perhaps such stress aids survival by keeping us away from situations that may be dangerous because we don't know how to handle them. If gaining knowledge to eliminate that stressful feeling is a deep psychological need, perhaps people would feel better about having an objectively false or foolish belief than about saying to themselves, "I don't know."  If so, when a belief is challenged, there is a threat to remove a "security blanket." 

Provides Tribal Glue. Beliefs are tribal glue, I think.  There is practical value in believing or pretending to believe what people important to us believe, even if such beliefs are entirely false and utterly stupid.  Churches are typically upset by heretics in their midst even if they are very tolerant of disbelievers outside the church.  Our public beliefs are part of our social identity, and it doesn't matter whether the beliefs are about "facts" or about theory or something that is unverifiable.  It may well be difficult to trust or rely on a tribe member whose behavior we cannot predict. Perhaps this social cohesion function explains the odd finding that scientists as a group are very unlikely to believe in God. "Most polls show that about 90% of the general public believes in a personal God; yet 93% of the members of the National Academy of Sciences do not."—Sam Harris here. That doesn't mean scientists function without beliefs. They just have a different set of beliefs including a belief in the sanctity of facts observed in the physical world, that the world is orderly and (eventually) understandable by mortals, and that there are no miracles or interventions by a Supreme Being. 

Improves Social Status. Belief may be better than actual knowledge in a contest for leadership of the pack. It's hard to be the leader when you admit you need to study the issue and a rival confidently expresses a belief.  A blog comment I read recently on the subject of why very smart economists often publish dumb economic analysis and advice said he was told by a "smirking" professor, that "it's better to be wrong than to be irrelevant." 

Reinforces Authority. Beliefs may be useful to maintain hierarchical or social control and discipline. One whose conduct has been inconsistent with orthodox beliefs is not permitted to challenge the correctness of the beliefs. He may argue that his conduct was in fact consistent with the beliefs or reaffirm the beliefs and explain why it won't happen again. On such occasions, Homer says miscreant Greeks blamed "ate," translated as blindness or confusion temporarily thrust upon them by the gods. 

PrintView Printer Friendly Version

EmailEmail Article to Friend

Reader Comments (1)


just signed up and wanted to say hello while I read through the posts

hopefully this is just what im looking for looks like i have a lot to read.

July 30, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterWoonsbusebabs

PostPost a New Comment

Enter your information below to add a new comment.

My response is on my own website »
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
Some HTML allowed: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <code> <em> <i> <strike> <strong>