“Beliefs have inspired human to conquer diseases, to explore unchartered lands, to construct beautiful edifices, and to look beyond their personal needs and work for the welfare of others, fighting for equality, defending freedom, helping the sick and assisting the poor,” writes James E. Alcock.
Yet, how our beliefs are formed, how they act upon us, and why we cling to them even in the face of evidence to the contrary is often something we seldom stop to consider.
In his new book, Belief: What It Means To Believe and Why Our Convictions Are So Compelling, James E. Alcock unveils the psychology of belief, demonstrating how memories, emotions, perceptions, and even distorted perceptions and false memories shape our beliefs and our lives.
One example of how strongly belief can compel us toward action that many consider horrific is suicide terrorism. Alcock writes, “At times, some people so strongly identify with a particular group that they no longer see themselves as unique individuals, but instead only constituents of the group, resulting in identity fusion, and a “visceral feeling of oneness” with the group.
When societal factors such as community beliefs, religion, and culture combine to support belief, it acts like an engine propelling itself forward.
“We like to think that we consciously choose to believe one thing and not another, and while some beliefs are indeed based on a logical analysis of available information, most come into being without much awareness or consideration of actual evidence,” writes Alcock.
How beliefs are constructed is a process of perception, which can be selective, influenced by emotions, and the source of significantly distorted representations of reality. Alcock quotes author Anais Nin, “We don’t see things as they are; we see them as we are.”
What we remember about the world around us, and events in our lives and ourselves also plays a fundamental role in how our beliefs are formed. Alcock writes, “In a real sense, who you are — your self-identity — is who you remember yourself to be.”
Yet like perception, memories are prone to error. Episodic memory — which allows us to access our personal experiences — is charged with emotion, influenced by situational factors, and even changed by the process of being asked about the memory.
Alcock writes, “It is probably difficult to accept that something you clearly remember having experienced could be a distorted reconstruction of what actually happened, or even a complete fiction. Such departures from reality occur more frequently than we realize.”
Beliefs and emotions also exist in a mutually influential relationship. The more a belief elicits an emotion, the stronger the belief will be, and when feeling strong emotions — particularly fear — we develop strong beliefs.
Alcock quotes psychologists Gerald Clore and Karen Glasper, who said, “Once emotion takes over, the system no longer operates as a scientist carefully weighing the pros and cons of the belief implied by the emotion. Instead, the emotional person acts like a prosecutor or defense lawyer seeking any means to find evidence for the belief.”
Unsurprisingly, the system also leads to biases and illusions. One notable one, known as the introspective illusion, is the belief that we are capable of accurate insight into our mental states and can therefore understand why we hold our beliefs.
Alcock writes, “Research suggests that our insights into our own mental states are based only on inferences that we draw about ourselves, in the same way that we make inferences about other people’s mental states based on their actions. In other words, we simply do not have direct access to the working of our minds.”
We can also be persuaded to believe in different ways. While some rely on heavy cognitive evaluation, others rely on peripheral factors such as the expertise, credibility, or attractiveness of the source.
In the face of general uncertainty and personal anxiety, however, a belief that has personal relevance and seems credible can take hold — often in the form of social contagion, propaganda, or rumor.
We also don’t like incomplete information, and when given false information that is later retracted, we have a hard time letting it go. Alcock writes, “Initial news about an airplane crash creates an immediate mystery — what happened? If this is followed by a report that a terrorist’s bomb blew up the airplane, you now have an explanation that makes sense.”
While beliefs can also directly influence our bodies, helping us feel safe and relaxed or causing us to feel fearful and threatened, avoiding the biases and illusions inherent in belief requires systematic application of critical thinking.
We should beware that we can all be fooled, be wary of our intuitions, our tendency to attribute our behavior to our characters and intentions while overlooking the power of the situation, the desire for personal validation, reliance on a single source of information, and mistaking correlation for causation.
An exhaustive look at why we believe as we do, how our beliefs are formed, and the folly of our trust in them, Alcock’s book will have us all rethinking what we believe and hopefully suspending judgment long enough to employ a little critical thinking.
Belief: What It Means to Believe and Why Our Convictions Are So Compelling
Prometheus Books, April 2018
Hardcover, 638 pages