A BASE jumper is shown leaping off a cliff from a great height.

Where Do Beliefs Come From?

Among Americans, 98 percent of scientists believe that humans evolved over time, and 81 percent of all Americans hold the same view, though in choosing evolution over intelligent design, the supporters are fewer. Not surprisingly, the answers you get depend on how you ask the question.

Where do such beliefs come from, and what is a belief? Psychologists often apply the label “concept” to a set of objects that resemble each other, and “schema” to a cluster of concepts; a wedding is an “event schema”, for example. A belief integrates schemas into a larger understanding. It might be false—superstitious, delusional—and still give the believer the illusion of understanding. The necessity for schemas to be compatible with the belief that adopts them is presumably a cause of confirmation bias.

Unlike concepts and schemas, a belief does not stand alone. A belief can tie schemas together because it belongs to a network of beliefs that imply each other. For instance, if you believe that premarital sex is wrong, you may believe that weddings are a natural stage of human development.

Such beliefs tie you into a network of similar believers and contribute to your sense of identity. Important as personal identity is, there’s a deeper reason to hold beliefs: ignorance. We can’t explain or predict a lot that happens to us, and that uncertainty can make us anxious. Even in salmon, uncertain chronic stressors inhibit food intake and growth. To reduce the anxiety that ignorance produces, we make up explanations—out of prior learning, inference, and economy, which means that we tend to fall back on mental shortcuts such as magical thinking.

Unfortunately, rational decisions don’t guard against biases as well as we’d hope, and they follow the ruts of our prior beliefs. They’re not a path to truth as often as we’d like.

Moreover, although scientific beliefs are supported by evidence and risk probabilities, everyday life is different. As the post on “Behavioral Immunity” pointed out, in everyday life we often judge risk by its scariness instead of its likelihood.

Still, our beliefs satisfy us until we flunk an exam or a promotion. One of our most blatant errors of metacognition, or knowing what we know, is the illusion of understanding, also known as the illusion of explanatory depth, the illusory truth effect, or the knowledge illusion.

Mostly this does not trouble us. We rarely reflect on our explanatory ability; we have confirmation bias for a crutch; and so we ignore opportunities to improve.

Just now we are immersed in a pandemic that scares a lot of people. We know that some people have latched on to a belief that chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine would offer protection against the virus, even though the observable evidence provided scant hope. What might explain this?

We form beliefs to reduce uncertainty. That explains the origin of conspiracy theories in a time of calamity, for example. According to Prooijen, Douglas, and De Inosensio, “Conspiracy theories reinforce a belief that nothing in the world happens through coincidence”. Conspiracy theories are a coping mechanism for dealing with uncertainty. That may be why some people believe that the experts are hiding the news of hydroxychloroquine from us and that an effective cure exists.

We vary a lot in our tolerance for uncertainty and in our ignorance.

A nurse in a cartoon brandishes a hypodermic syringe to give a seated boy a vaccination.

BIO: Our beliefs are not prefigured in our genes, though some brain imagers conceive of a localized faculty for belief in the right precuneus. We should keep in mind that that piece of neural real estate is occupied by other responsibilities as well, including service as a putative substrate for joy.

Beliefs are culturally transmitted when they are not invented. If biology sheds any light on how beliefs are formed, it must concern very basic or primitive processes, I think.

For example, we all possess body maps that guide our movements. Some parts of the body are densely innervated, such as our lips and fingertips. Because many more neurons are devoted to transmitting signals from those areas than from areas of comparable size in, say, the back, the areas of the brain devoted to them are large in the sensory and motor cortex. These maps are called homunculi. The sensory homunculus and the motor humunculus are maps based on recordings and electrical stimulations of the brain, respectively. They follow every sulcus on the cortical surface. Drawings don’t show it, but about two-thirds of the cortical surface is hidden in the walls of sulci and fissures.

If that example does not persuade, how about our impression that we are just the right body size? From what we know about hominin evolution, our bodies have been adjusted in size several times in our evolution, but our current size has seemed suitable–barring some correlation with latitude—for a long time.

Mind you, in our more recent past, our brains have actually been getting smaller. While it’s true that our bodies as a whole may have begun shrinking, our brains are diminishing even faster. This will conserve energy; bigger isn’t always better, and perhaps what we once did as individuals we can now leave to society. Have our social organizations become so sophisticated that they allow us to offload cognitive tasks to society, perhaps including the Internet?

In other words, might we have evolved biologically to generate beliefs as individuals, only to share beliefs and then generate cooperative beliefs through cultural transmission?

PSYCHO: Whether superstitious, delusional, or scientific, beliefs are a way of connecting the dots to explain our experiences. They are a search for meaning, often focusing on ourselves.

Connecting the dots started with the nine-dot problem and connect-the-dots pictures. It became a buzzword for creative thinking, but unconventional ways of connecting the dots breeds not only adaptive solutions but superstitions and conspiracy theories.

Forming beliefs is analogous to perceiving the external world, when we must quickly decide how to organize ambiguous stimuli into familiar objects.

In these days of pandemic, we search for explanations of health and disease. This has been going on for a long time, and often we content ourselves with untrue beliefs, although some claim superiority at the task.

A thorough look at our beliefs about what will keep us well can be found in an online course, The Science of Everyday Thinking, featuring nine video clips and two psychologists from Canada and Australia. 

Once formed, our beliefs hang together and resist disturbance, though the “backfire effect” has probably been exaggerated.

SOCIAL: Many of our health beliefs arise from social influence. We are particularly sensitive to influence by people in authority, as the Jonestown massacre and the chloroquine incident indicate.

Another issue is our willingness to confuse others’ knowledge for our own (press red arrow for podcast).

However, collective belief (as opposed to widespread beliefs, such as those that are encoded in language) remains a topic for speculation, as  I see it. Some enthusiasm for measuring EEG synchronization among people seems to be building, but there are usually enough alternative explanations for such activity (other than binaural beats 😊 ) that it has not been necessary to rely on collective belief.

As for the linguistic relativity mentioned in the previous paragraph, it should be seen as one influence among many that affect the beliefs we hold. In a language are embedded many of the concepts its speakers hold, such as stereotypes and assigning blame, when we distinguish whether a mishap is an accident or intentional. If relativity is exaggerated into the more radical doctrine of linguistic determinism, which holds that the thoughts of one culture can’t be translated into a culture with a different language, it looms as the straw man that John McWhorter entertainingly demolishes as he takes aim at linguistic relativity.

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