How Can You Believe That?

New research helps explain that people usually don't "choose" their beliefs.

Posted Jul 06, 2020

Probably some of the most surprising things in this world are the beliefs of others.

From paranormal conspiracy theories to continued support for immoral politicians, it is baffling how some people continue to hold such seemingly “wrong” beliefs.

Why do others choose to believe such illogical ideas?

Control of Mental Content

Let’s do a little experiment:

I want you to place a small piece of paper in your pocket. Then, with all your will, I want you to believe that the piece of paper is a $100 bill. Really try, and I mean with all your might, to believe there is a $100 bill in your pocket. How successful were you?

Although this might have seemed like a silly experiment, it is meant to highlight how we don’t have total control over our beliefs. In fact, many of the things we “choose” to believe, we don’t choose at all. Evidence from our eyes, ears, etc. dictate what we can or cannot believe.

For example, let’s consider some other beliefs you might have, say, in regard to climate change or your opinion of the President. If you tried really, really hard, could you “choose” to hold a different belief than what you currently do? For instance, if you believe climate change is real, could you “choose” to believe it was fake?

If not, then it’s important to recognize that others also have similar difficulty in “choosing” what they believe.

Some Thoughts Are Uncontrollable

According to research, we hold a general hierarchy for the “controllability” of different mental content. On the lowest level are emotions, which we believe are the least controllable. Next up, are our desires, which we believe are more controllable than emotions. At the top, are our beliefs and attitudes, which we believe are more controllable than both our emotions and desires.

However, there is an important difference in how “controllable” we believe mental content is, namely, in comparison to ourselves versus others. That is, we generally tend to believe that others have more control over their mental content than we do.

For example, participants were described a scenario about a student. In it, the student studied hard for a chemistry exam, but when she sat down to take it, she discovered that the professor had given an unfair exam. Afterward, the student got angry at the teacher, and participants were asked to evaluate how much control the student had over her anger.

In this example, participants thought the student had a moderately high degree of control over her anger. However, if participants imagine themselves in that situation (vs. another student), they report they would have significantly less control over their anger.

In other words, we tend to believe that other people have more control over their emotions, desires, beliefs, etc. than we ourselves do. Whereas we are very aware of how situational factors (like an unfair test) can strongly influence our emotions, desires, and beliefs, we fail to consider how these same situational factors equally influence others.

In sum, just as your beliefs are affected (and constrained) by the evidence you’ve encountered and the situational factors around them, so, too, are others’ beliefs equally influenced by these things. However, we tend to forget that others’ beliefs are similarly constrained by these outside factors, meaning we think other people should be able to exert more control over their emotions, desires, beliefs, etc. than we ourselves can.

Controllable = Blameworthy

This difference in how we perceive the “controllability” of one’s mental content can have important consequences. That is, the more you think someone can “choose” their emotions, desires, beliefs, the more you blame them for having such emotions, desires, beliefs.

For example, if you met someone who believed the earth was flat, you would likely think they “chose” to have this belief. And because you think they had control over their belief, you are more likely to blame this person (and get mad at them) for holding such a belief.

But think about yourself for a moment. Did you “choose” to believe the earth is round? Or did evidence and your surrounding environment dictate that you believe this?

Thus, we should try to recognize that others’ beliefs, just like our own, are constrained by the evidence and information they themselves have learned. Rather than blaming and getting mad at people for believing such a “wrong” idea, we should better understand that other people’s beliefs (like our own!) are greatly influenced by the situation and evidence around them.

References

Cusimano, C., & Goodwin, G. P. (2019). Lay beliefs about the controllability of everyday mental states. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.

Cusimano, C., & Goodwin, G. P. (2020). People judge others to have more voluntary control over beliefs than they themselves do. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.