I was struck last week by this article from the New York Times, which (serendipitiously) corresponds to a classroom experience that I often have. In the article, author Maria Konnikova describes the role that facts play in belief formation. Konnikova is documenting what many other psychologists have also noted: many of our strongly-held beliefs are formed not because they are particularly logical or backed with hard data, but emerge only to the degree that they reinforce ideas that we already hold. What this means is that we tend to gravitate towards the familiar rather than the factual.
There are many reasons why people reject sound data, and Konnikova mentions briefly that mistrust of authority is a predominant reason. But I think there might be something even more fundamental going on here, something I often witness in my own students’ responses when I have them do a very simple exercise.
I often ask my students to make a list of ten of their personal beliefs — any beliefs at all. After they’ve done that, I ask them to write next to that belief what logical evidence they have to prove it. What happens is usually quite predictable. Almost all of them realize that they hold some beliefs that they can’t logically back (“I don’t know why I believe in angels — I just do”) and they also locate some of their beliefs as very individual and perhaps even aesthetic (“I believe watermelon is disgusting”). Yet what I think is most interesting is how frequently students say they believe something, but then admit that deep-down they really question if it’s true (“Things always work out for the best.”).
What this illuminates for me is that we talk about beliefs in a much different way than we deploy them. As Craig Martin has noted elsewhere, beliefs actually function as ideals that lubricate the social engine and help negotiate our identities within society rather than reflecting an objective version of reality. When we were once discussing this phenomenon in class, a student noted that one of her beliefs was “hard work always pays off.” In light of our conversation, she responded, “So what am I supposed to do — admit that sometimes hard work doesn’t pay off? Then what does that mean about all the time and money I’ve spent on college?” Precisely! In the case of almost all firmly held beliefs, a part of one’s identity is challenged when the belief itself is questioned; this is undoubtedly why the familiar often wins out over the factual. If presenting our beliefs as features of our identity is simultaneously showing others how much we embody social norms (tip of the hat to Durkheim), then they are key to how we become intelligible to ourselves and others as valuable members of a social group.
photo credit: newyorker.com