A sailor is shown at the wheel of his ship, against a background of a ship on a stormy sea.

How Do Beliefs Work?

The New Year is almost here! If you want to start it off right, here are some suggestions.

Of course we know deep down that eating a sensible diet and getting a good night’s sleep on New Year’s Eve makes more sense, but our friends reinforce a departure from normal behavior.

We’re familiar with children’s fantasies, the beliefs in their parents’ omnipotence, in Santa Claus, and sometimes in scarier things. We expect such magical thinking to pass away as we grow up, although it doesn’t necessarily.

Often we’re gullible. Where do superstitions come from? Why do we believe in luck*? If we’re stressed we may develop delusional thinking. Where does that come from? Psychologists are still looking for a consensus explanation.

You’re right that we think we have normal thoughts. Whether in politics, cultural differences, personal identity, science and its theories, it’s the way we think and the way our memories act.

There are several reasons for our intransigence. One biggie is confirmation bias, or finding just the facts that help our side. We believe what suits our identity and we stick with what’s easy.

It can be hard to distinguish delusions from normal beliefs. Maybe on New Year’s Day and on Friday the 13th, we should admit our susceptibility to false beliefs and maybe increase our self-awareness.

Twenty-five years ago, James Alcock called the brain a “belief engine” that generated solutions to common problems that were the same in many people, as though we inherited them. Today we call extreme beliefs delusions, while our own garden-variety beliefs are merely cognitive biases.

Among psychologists there’s a widespread agreement—a belief, in fact—that beliefs are ways to make sense of things. They are a top-down interpretation of what we experience. We often can’t prove that our beliefs are true, but that guilty admission costs us less than avoiding the threat of uncertainty that beliefs overcome. There’s an argument to be made that even extreme beliefs, delusions, are—or once were—adaptive

We hate uncertainty, but we’re lazy–cognitive misers. Rather than expend effort on understanding, we take shortcuts. So when something unexpected happens, we invent explanations: beliefs.

*Luck as improbable chance does occur, but luck as a mysterious essence does not. Chance vs. luck.

A drawing of a four-leaf clover

BIO: Maybe humans aren’t the only animals on earth to form beliefs, but we are in elite company. Some birds (Corvidae family) and some apes (chimpanzees) may have beliefs.

Are beliefs the result of biological evolution, then? Can cognitive skills like beliefs become fixed in a species by evolution? If other cognitive structures, like both universal and constructed emotions as well as attitudes, evolved, it is not out of the question that a capability for beliefs might also be adaptive, genetically influenced and transmissible.  

That does not mean that there must be genes “for” religions, political opinions, and other beliefs. Specific beliefs are the result of learning.

PSYCHO: The previous discussion of beliefs was a brief introduction, without much attention to evolution or mechanisms.

Beliefs have been called mental shortcuts, tend to be easy to learn and resistant to change, though they can result from hard experience*. They reveal what Kahneman called fast thinking rather than slow thinking, though there are different ways of thinking fast.

How might beliefs work, psychologically? Like cognitive biases, they are helpful because life happens without warning and often calls for fast action. Beliefs generate expectations, even about random events; they could be templates for selecting reactions to different environments, like emotions and attitudes. They are not as basic as reflexes. Whereas reflexes are automatic and inflexible, beliefs are ways of explaining perceptions, like the schemas of Bartlett and Piaget, that adapt behavior to our surroundings. Our beliefs are prompts for action, unlike schemata. Yet our beliefs incorporate cognitive biases, and they may generate biased predictions**.

*Real monkeys don’t act that way.
**Real people do act that way.

SOCIAL: We are known by our beliefs. Are you a Creationist or a Darwinist? The dichotomy of beliefs, as Daniel Dennett asserted in the video linked above, is a false one, and this divides us unnecessarily. So it may be with Catholics and Protestants, Democrats and Republicans, and even our genders, which are mainly learned behaviors, as opposed to biological sex.

But disagreements can be deadly when people are convinced that vaccination causes autism or that salt causes infertility. Even when the issue is not a threat, it cements social bonds. West Texans insist on leaving beans out of the chili and Chicagoans erupt if someone pours ketchup on their hot dogs. Pittsburghers think they know better.

There are a few beliefs that cross cultural lines around the world, like our beliefs in ghosts and luck. We “know” that lucky people get ahead; even in adversity, we can say that resilience itself is just a matter of luck. In our Western culture we demand fairness, so there’s a tendency to blame the victim rather than luck. (This is what Nisbett labeled the fundamental attribution error.) Or we tell ourselves that people make their own luck. (Do we manufacture serendipity? Does everything depend on how you look at it?)

Actually luck always tilts the field, probably more than we find comfortable, which leads to a lot of rituals that probably represent resilience. The stress that never leaves us is uncertainty, and beliefs, including superstitions, always makes us feel safer. Apparently we evolved this way. “Nature makes chance, humans make luck.”

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