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What Are Beliefs?

What we believe may influence us more profoundly than what we know.

Key points

  • Unlike knowledge, beliefs tend to lack certainty or evidence.
  • Passionate beliefs are infused with intense emotion and therefore are activating or motivating.
  • People believe because they become emotionally attached to an idea.
  • Beliefs have an evolutionary purpose in that they are used in calculations people make about future events.

To know is different than to believe. For example, we know the designations for specific people, places, or things that are stored in memory. Thus, we know that California is a state or that a woody plant with a trunk is a tree. Yet unlike knowledge, beliefs may lack certainty or evidence, even though we may state a belief with conviction and a sense of truth.

Passionate beliefs drive action

Based on past experiences, we develop simple beliefs, like believing there will be traffic on the road and, thus, deciding to leave early for a destination. Yet passionate beliefs represent strongly held theories or conclusions that are infused with intense emotion and therefore are activating or motivating. These charged beliefs form the basis of our behavior given they become a value and thereby drive action. That is, our application of significance and meaning to something then determines an action, intention, or purpose (Bohm, 1987).

Politicians enjoy converting dispassionate beliefs into passionate ones in order to motivate their constituents. A strategy of advertisers or television news programs is to amplify the intensity of a dispassionate belief or to energize a belief in ways that activate people who hold it. What we feel may influence our beliefs more than what we think, so the manipulation of what we feel can solidify our convictions and motivate our behaviors surrounding the belief. This information is nothing new. Aristotle pointed out that emotional arousal was recognized as essential in the persuasive formation of ideas (Kennedy, 1991). We believe because we become emotionally attached to an idea. The understanding of socio-political events such as intergroup hostility and violence involves the ways in which beliefs are influenced by emotions (Frijda, et al., 2000).

Emotions make beliefs resistant to change

Emotions can amplify or alter a belief by shaping, awakening, or intruding into them and making them resistant to change (Frijda, et al., 2000). Beliefs often develop as a result of specific emotional experiences we encounter. Throughout life, the significance, value, or meaning we bestow on a specific event is what turns the event into an experience with the potential to change us (Smith, 2018). Along with experiential significance, we may apply an existential meaning that involves what an event means for our identity or who we are (Smith, 2018). Further, we may consider the meaning in terms of our life purpose or the meaning of our life (Smith, 2018). From this, we develop and maintain beliefs that we take with us into the future.

Beliefs can govern our lives

Despite our inability to clearly validate our beliefs, they have an evolutionary purpose in that we use them in whatever calculations we make about future events. We base our decisions on what we believe, even though our beliefs, particularly those about ourselves, could be fallacious or distorted. Thus, what we believe can govern our lives and motivate our actions more than we recognize.

References

Bohm, D. (1987). Unfolding meaning. Routledge.

Frijda, N. H., Manstead, A. S. R., & Bem, S. (Eds.). (2000). Emotions and belief: How feelings influence thoughts. Cambridge University Press. https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9780511659904

Kennedy, G. A. (1991). Aristotle, on Rhetoric: A Theory of Civic Discourse. Oxford University Press.

Smith, J. (2018). Participants and researchers searching for meaning: Conceptual developments for interpretative phenomenological analysis. Qualitative Research in Psychology, 16(2), 166–181. https://doi.org/10.1080/14780887.2018.1540648

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