Beliefs and Discussions

by Krishna on July 5, 2011

I don’t have a Grand Unified Theory on why people believe what they believe and how they change their minds. But here are some observations recorded in no particular order:

Almost all of our beliefs fall into two categories:

  • I believe X. It is an opinion and I am open to changing my views.
  • I believe Y. It is a core belief and I am not going to change it.

There is nothing fundamentally correct or wrong with either category. For example, most human beings believe that taking an innocent life or torturing someone is evil and in my view, being a fundamentalist there is the right thing. And, elections would not make much sense if the politicians you elect decide to do the opposite of most of the promises they made.

In general, though, we do prefer people who are open-minded about topics that are not verifiable facts and don’t have overwhelming consensus. The idea is that being open-minded allows us to debate the topic and understand it better. On some level, it is not very satisfying if everyone nods and agrees with us, because we would never understand the limitations of our current understanding and improve upon them.

Unfortunately, the problem is that we often think that someone is in Category (1) when they are actually in Category (2). They are not looking to change their views. They are looking to validate them and they also want us to buy into their opinions. Any evidence that is against their opinion clashes against a belief that cannot be changed, resulting in cognitive dissonance that requires inventing of new justifications or “facts”. And vice versa, i.e., we can also be guilty of the same thing when someone presents us with evidence against our solid beliefs.

This is particularly true of religious and political beliefs. Consider, for example, the “landslide” US Presidential elections of 193619641972 and 1984. The margin of victory in the electoral college masks the fact that in none of these elections, the triumphant candidate (Republican or Democrat) failed to win a two-thirds majority of the popular vote, not to mention all the people who didn’t even turn out to vote. You would think maybe in these elections, one candidate was totally wrong and the other completely right, and so everyone should have voted for that person. Instead, what we have is that despite great momentum for one side of the political debate, around 40% of the country still chose the other side.

Also take a look at this survey and scroll to the part where the question, “What might make you buy an iPhone instead?” was asked to Android users. A scarcely believable 56% said that nothing would make them do that because they hate Apple. This might come as news to those who revere Apple products! Everyone has strong beliefs, but given that they are opposing beliefs, at least some people have strong beliefs in something that is not true.

There are also group dynamics with respect to beliefs. It is the case when one belief or tradition is strongly associated with one set of people, another group (that likes to be separate from the first group) will adopt an opposing belief. We see this with income groups. When a product becomes a commodity and thus inexpensive enough for poor people to own or use, then it stops being a talking point for richer folks. Part of why people spend enormous amount of money buying a simple first version of a product or standing in line for the first show of a movie is the bragging rights and being part of the “club”, so as to speak.

Take a look at liberal and conservative politics and see how many beliefs involve just needing to put oneself across the table from the member of the other party. Consider that Party A wants “X” and Party B wants “Y”. Suppose over a period of years, “X” falls out of favor with the public. Members of Party A, being politicians, do not want lose elections and decide to embrace “Y”. Will Party B salute them for it? If you look at politics, this never happens. Party B then decides to embrace a more extreme form of “Y”, so that there still remains no consensus and there remains a difference between the two parties. This has been the case with the fall of Communism. Formerly socialist parties who have embraced free market solutions are still left of center because of the shifting of the Overton window.

There is the ego element with changing beliefs. Say I believe in Religion X. If I accept today that Religion X was wrong and Y was correct, what does that say about me? That I was ignorant and not thinking properly for decades? It is difficult to imagine what changing a long-held view means to one’s perception of oneself. Doing it publicly can be more humiliating. For example, what happens if a manager ignores the suggestions of people working under him and leads them to failure? How much you would bet on that incident never coming up for discussion again?

Finally, there is the “preemptive” belief. This has to do with accusing people of harboring the same intention you have. For example, Hitler butchered millions of Jews after falsely accusing them of doing bad things. All throughout history, evil things have been done to innocents in the name of country and religion after they have been accused of being evil. The perpetrators of murder and torture were under the delusion that they were doing the right thing.

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