Two Belief Models


The New Yorker has an article called “I don’t want to be right” which discusses studies that explore why peoples’ beliefs are stubbornly resistant to change. This quote from the article inspired my drawing above:

“When there’s no immediate threat to our understanding of the world, we change our beliefs. It’s when that change contradicts something we’ve long held as important that problems occur.”

I strongly agree and have posted on this issue before and hope this drawing may also help make the different views more clear — better than paragraphs.

Many people misunderstand beliefs. They don’t understand how our brains form them or use them. They don’t realize that we often hold beliefs because we perceive them to aid important parts of our lives. It is often fruitless to discuss beliefs without understanding how our beliefs actually serve us — because the brain cares less about the truth of a belief than about the belief’s function.

Much like the particle-wave models for light, I think beliefs can be visualized accurately using both of the models I have illustrated above, but by themselves, each model is lacking. Beliefs support us, or carry us — as I once tried to illustrate in post with this balloon drawing too.

Question to readers: Have you ever noted some stubborn non-religious belief you had which you only gave up once it no longer served your life?




Filed under Philosophy & Religion

21 responses to “Two Belief Models

  1. I’m laughing right now because I thought of you when I read that article the other day and meant to send it your way.

  2. Wow, thanks MichaelB — it means you understand my position. I was comforted to see that people much smarter than myself are helping to correct misunderstandings of beliefs.

    Now, my question: Is the diagram useful?

  3. @Sabio, Yes, the diagram is useful. I get tired of reading lengthy threads where an atheist is basically saying to a Xian, “You’re obviously mistaken in your beliefs. Why can’t you just admit it?” It’s rarely just about facts or evidence. And to your other question, since my deconversion I have been applying some of the same critical eye to other areas of my life and finding all sorts of false beliefs. I have been holding some wrong ideas about my marriage even. Those have been harder to let go of than my religion.

  4. Thanx for sharing, MichaelB! Best wishes, as always, on what replaces old false or non-functional beliefs.

  5. @ MichaelB
    “since my deconversion I have been applying some of the same critical eye to other areas of my life and finding all sorts of false beliefs. I have been holding some wrong ideas about my marriage even.”

    Yes! I totally understand. It has taken me years of shedding the old skin of conservative Christian theologies and ideologies. Every once in a while I find it popping up here and there and I think, “where did that come from?” My marraige was particularly affected by this, I think now for the better, but it got worse before it got better. This process has led to the deconstruction of all and everything that I am aware of.

    @ Sabio

    Great diagram! While I have changed many of my beliefs I haven’t thought much of what has replaced it. If I am honest, I suppose I am afraid to look into it, the last thing I want to do is hold on to something new with the same absoluteness as I did with previous beliefs.

  6. Well, honestly, for me – while a lot of people use one of your models – I miss the real deal, the real option. This would be the second (where “belives” is the ship, but changed up as followed:

    The ship should name “faith” and on the ship are – next to identity, family, work and community a few other named “believes”.

    With this you have a fundament what carries you through life no matter what will happen, guide you, rescue you, carry you, a prooved fundament in Jesus and God. And on top you’ve a huge amount of true or false believes, who serve you as long as they serve you and get overboard as soon as they don’t anymore. 🙂

  7. So you can name it: While our faith holds us, we hold our own beliefs.

  8. Lutek

    You’re absolutely right that the two views need to be integrated.
    One comment about the diagram, though. In the boat labelled Our Belief you’ve labelled individual aspects of our selves, but in the boat labelled Our Selves you haven’t identified specific aspects of belief. I tried to do that and it became very confusing as to which aspects belong in which boat. The ones you show in the Beliefs boat belong just as much in the Selves boat. It would seem that our selves are our beliefs.
    Reading the New Yorker article it occurred to me that a healthy balance between open-mindedness and skepticism is an important factor. While I agree with the theme of the article, I had a problem with one assertion: “If information doesn’t square with someone’s prior beliefs, he discards the beliefs if they’re weak and discards the information if the beliefs are strong.” I would rewrite that last part to “…discards the information if the data are weak.” Still, the tendency to choose belief over information is a problem.

  9. @ Lutek:
    I totally agree with what RESEARCH has observed:

    “If information doesn’t square with someone’s prior beliefs, he discards the beliefs if they’re weak and discards the information if the beliefs are strong.”

    I understand the change you want to make but that is because you don’t want to imagine yourself doing the above. I guarantee you that you do reject strong information (good data) when it is too much of a threat to something you hold dear. You’d probably like to imagine yourself not doing that, but we all do. That was the point of the article.

    Now, concerning the model — you misunderstand my intent. The boat on the right has a frame of beliefs — it is those beliefs which support a person’s family life, work life, community life and such — those are not beliefs in the boat.

    Is that more clear?

  10. @ Christine,
    “Faith” is such a loaded work — an Evangelical favorite to slip any idea in they wish. I am sure Christians would love to envision themselves floating on a faith ship — one they never have to question. But “faith” is just another belief — a belief and an identity word. Faith can mean “my religion” or “trust” or “believing without evidence — and often, inspite of counter evidence.” That counter-evidence, as the article discusses — is probably the stuff you throw out because your “faith” is so strong — your identity, your life preferences, your associations and such.

    See my post on the various meanings of “faith”: Faith Defined

  11. @ C2Q,
    Good points — thanx for sharing.

  12. Lutek

    @ Sabio:
    I don’t reject what the research has observed, or the conclusion in the article; just the wording of the conclusion, which is sounds like a generalization. When we become aware of that tendency to defend cherished beliefs, we can act to overcome it – with varying degrees of success of course.
    Yes, I get that those are not beliefs in the boat on the right. I just tend to get a bit carried away analyzing metaphors. What else is in the ‘self’ boat on the left besides beliefs? Which boat is leakier? Which sits higher in the water? etc.
    Sorry about that. I’m not trying to push your buttons, just explaining how my overly-analytical mind works.
    I guess I’m somewhat “acceptually challenged.”

  13. @ Lutek,
    But the wording of the conclusion, as a generalization is true. To reword:
    “We generally throw out or ignore information that challenges the beliefs that support strong preferences and habits in our life.”
    I totally agree with that. To do otherwise, is exceptional and uncommon.
    Would you agree?

  14. Lutek

    @ Sabio,
    As a generalization, I fully agree. most people do it most of the time.A few people do it only in extreme cases. But probably no one manages to avoid it completely.

  15. @Sabio:
    Question to readers: Have you ever noted some stubborn non-religious belief you had which you only gave up once it no longer served your life?

    I can’t quite find examples to answer this question. But I know of beliefs I have (belief, in the sense of something I hold true because of evidence) which I have changed, but it’s not because it nolnger served my life. For instance, I believed that professors in mathematics were curious to know mathematics beyond their immediate field. I changed this belief.

    You discuss “belief” and “faith”. I loathe both words, as you know, precisely because they mean so many different things. Also because they are language-dependent. For instance, both words translate into πίστη – pisti in Greek (πίστις – pistis in classical Greek).

    Yes, your diagram is useful. (Little comment: “passengers” is misspelled.

    N.B. Perhaps the ultimate reason I hate the word “belief” is not because I can, or always do, justify every single belief of mine (whatever belief means), but because there are so many people who won’t change their beliefs even though they are provably wrong.

  16. @ Takis,
    Thanx for the typo tip – got it!

    You said,

    You discuss “belief” and “faith”. I loathe both words, as you know, precisely because they mean so many different things.

    Then I imagine you had words like: love, hate, pride, patriot, terrorist, and more.

    Then you said,

    Also because they are language-dependent.


    Also, there is a great list of words like that too.

    So in my opinion, the words are fine. We tons of familiar words. But you are correct, I write often about the abuse of these words, the trickery and such — both done in secular and religious circles.

    Type in the word “abstractions” to see several posts on this issue.

    In fact, I will add one diagram “reification: packaging abstractions” to my column to the left.

  17. Steve Alexander

    “We hold our own beliefs” is consistent with Robert Kegan’s 4rd order of mind, the “self-authoring mind” (which David Chapman named “Systematic” in his summary).

    “Our beliefs hold us” is consistent with Robert Kegan’s 3rd order of mind, the “socialized mind”. It is unlikely any amount of rational explaining will cause someone who is held by beliefs to reconsider them, because even the idea of reconsidering beliefs is beyond that person’s current level of ability.

  18. @ Steve Alexander,

    I am not familiar with Kegan’s taxonomy, but I am a fan of Chapman — did you find me from his site?

    I totally agree with your last paragraph !! And it is consistent with how I understand most of our actions.

    If we use Kegan’s sort of level thinking, maybe people are divided between their many selves — having one level of ethical/meta thinking with one self (in certain domains) and another level at another.

    What do you think?

  19. Steve Alexander

    @Sabio Yes, I’ve enjoyed your comments on David’s sites.

    You might find the recent discussion on one of David’s posts that is related to this topic interesting.

    I think people display different capabilities in different situations. In Kegan’s work, and in the Constructive Developmental assessment Framework, cognitive development is related to, but distinct from, interpersonal (relationships between people) and intra-personal (relationships between many selves) development.

    For example, there are times when my at-work-self has been highly capable (cognitively and relationally), while my at-home-self has been showing much less sophistication.

    Spiral Dynamics has a somewhat related model. One of the examples from the book is of a person who is tribal and competitive in his sports team, yet cooperative and curious at work and home. Here’s an example.

    Although apparently similar, Spiral Dynamics and Kegan’s model are describing different things. Kegan’s is most concerned with capability — what is someone able to conceive? Spiral Dynamics is most concerned with high level perspectives that shape thinking (which they call vMEMEs). Both models describe how different orders of development are more or less capable of dealing with a variety of challenges and life-conditions.

  20. Steve Alexander

    There are two (very long) footnotes in Robert Kegan’s book In Over Our Heads that address the very question of whether the different “selves” of people might have different levels of development. They start on page 370 (footnote 25).

    You might be able to read the footnotes using the google search and this other google search.

    What he says is
    1. According to his research group’s empirical research of 22 subjects, the levels of developmental capability they bring to their “work life” and “love life” are the same, or very nearly the same.
    2. While it appears true that people sometimes display different developmental capability in different contexts, it seems to take energy to maintain this and feels unpleasant. We’re more effective when we are allowed to operate similarly in different contexts.
    3. In many cases where we seem to temporarily lose capability (when we “lose it” about something, for example), we are conscious of having operated at reduced capability in that moment. That suggests that the higher capability is still present, “watching”, but it isn’t active.

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