The science of belief: Why we believe what we believe? – Literature review

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“The confidence we have in our beliefs is preposterous, and it is also essential”.

Daniel Kahneman

This quote by Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman offers a great dichotomy of the phenomenon we refer to as believing.

We are driven by the multitude of beliefs that influence our everyday thoughts and behaviours. This is apparent within all the domains of human life that are significantly influenced by belief and its subsequent ripple effects on individual and collective behaviour. Whether in religion, politics and culture to lifestyle, education and even science, humans act according to their unique belief systems. Now the question remains, what exactly are beliefs, and why are they so crucial to the human condition?

What is belief?

Belief can be officially defined as the mental conviction or acceptance of the truth of a concept or idea (Schwitzgebel, 2010).

Most humans share two categories of beliefs expressed consciously or unconsciously, with the latter being outside our immediate awareness and reach. Most of our beliefs are of mundane contents, meaning that they come from our everyday senses that reveal casual truths, such as how our surroundings are real because we can touch them or how shadows are formed due to the obstruction of light. However, we possess more complex beliefs manifested in religious doctrines or political ideologies of how a country should be run. Ultimately, our beliefs create a mental lens through which we perceive reality, which significantly impacts how we develop and navigate the world around us (Halligan, 2007). 

Hence, it is crucial that we possess a robust understanding of our underlying beliefs and how we can leverage them to optimize our outcomes. This is precisely what we will explore in the following report. First, we will define and deconstruct the process of belief by explaining its psychological and neurological underpinnings. Second, we will discuss how beliefs are formed within the mind and how age mediates this process. Lastly, we will discuss how belief can be used to our advantage and delve deeper into the placebo effect. 

The components of belief

In itself, belief is a highly abstract process that can be broken down into various components. From a psychological perspective, belief can be characterized as thoughts and convictions driven by a self-ascribed understanding of a process or fact (Schwitzgebel, 2011). Due to its intangibility, many have attempted to provide a coherent psychological definition of belief and describe how it manifests within the mind. James (1989) demonstrated how belief could be conceived in the mind when one contrasts it with imagination. He states that there is a stark difference between imagining a thing and believing its existence. On the one hand, an imagined thing is held on too loosely and easily disregarded. On the other hand, something supported by belief is held on to with much more veracity and persists in the mind due to its position in perceived reality.

Through this framework, we begin to understand how beliefs can significantly influence our cognitive processes, and they have been shown in research to affect processes such as memory, information processing and attention (Winkiolman & Schwarz, 2001; Chaxel, 2016). To highlight this relationship, we must simply turn our heads to the phenomenon of delusion, which is essentially a pathological belief (Bell et al., 2006). As its name suggests, a deluded individual is someone who holds firm to an irrational belief despite having seen extensive evidence to the contrary. From this delusion, they may develop dysfunctional thought and behaviour patterns, triggering increased stress responses, ultimately leading to more serious psychological symptoms such as anxiety, depression and obsessions (Opoka et al., 2018). 

Research has also investigated the neurological underpinnings that underlie or hold up beliefs in the brain. These studies have concluded that beliefs hold an evolutionarily adaptive function for humans, which is displayed through the activation of specific brain regions of the frontal lobes (Rao et al., 2009). Essentially, the frontal lobes are responsible for managing what information has access to immediate conscious awareness, and much of that information is gridlocked by our belief systems (Stuss, 2000). This strongly coincides with the evolutionary function of humans needing to make sense of the world around them, where those who have a robust representation of reality, a belief system, will have a more considerable competitive advantage than those who do not. Effectively, research has shown that individuals who do not possess a coherent belief about the world and reality present significant emotional disempowerment and dejection (Kapogiannis et al., 2009).

How are Beliefs Formed?

Beliefs have been shown to develop around a multitude of external and internal factors. Some of these include sensory inputs, past knowledge and even personality traits (Rao et al., 2009). A broad range of elements contribute to the formation of beliefs, and it is crucial that we understand the overarching framework that allows this to happen.

To reiterate, individuals use beliefs to procure a model of reality that makes sense to them as it incurs a more significant competitive advantage to survive and thrive in life. Hence, it is most people’s prerogative to form a coherent belief system on the world around them.

Research has shown that beliefs are formed based on the premise that people seek answers, and those beliefs can be informed through many mediating factors such as environment, events, knowledge, visualization or past experiences (Rao et al., 2009). Moreover, once a particular belief has been formed, the brain will subsequently reinforce it by pouring in subjective logic, rationality and emotions, thereby confirming it to the individual (Connors & Halligan, 2015). Once this process has been achieved and further validated by future experiences, the belief will grow roots into the person’s cognitive processes and begin enacting its effects on their behaviour and personality. 

This is why developing children are so sensitive to belief formation as they enter the world as a blank slate and receive vast amounts of information that can influence their belief systems. One primary driver of this is how a child’s brain is highly plastic, meaning that its neural circuitry works extremely rapidly to process and integrate new information (Hochberg et al., 2011). Many researchers have compared the plastic brain to a sponge that rapidly absorbs anything it comes across, processing both negatively or positively weighted information during this period of development.

From birth, children are progressively integrating new information to make sense of the world, and by the time they reach the age of 7, they have enough information to form core beliefs (Arntz et al., 2018). More specifically, core beliefs refer to the subconscious knowledge that an individual has internalized as “truth” or “reality”. These beliefs are significantly entrenched within the person’s mind, and it is extremely difficult to shift or change them through novel information. 

After these core beliefs have been formed, they act as a foundation for future beliefs to be built upon. During their lifespan, individuals use these core beliefs as a guiding compass and typically form new beliefs that are congruent with their fundamental core beliefs (Daois & Rnic, 2015). Predominantly, these beliefs will form a similar trend where the newly formed beliefs will have some association with the underlying core beliefs.

changing belief

However, studies have shown that there are various events, or catalysts, that have the potential to completely change the trajectory of one’s belief systems (Leo et al., 2021). Trauma is one such event, as it significantly impacts our brain functions and leaves a neural trace that can override the traces formed to create a core belief. This is why we observe many reversals of religious beliefs following traumatic events due to the direct contrast between the event and their prior beliefs (Leo et al., 2021). Researchers have referred to this process as “shattering one’s assumptions”, and it is when a significant life event changes how individuals view themselves and the world. In these cases, the change process can be observed on a cognitive and neurological scale.

In summary, individuals will adopt a series of varying beliefs over their lifetime, most of which are associated with their underlying core beliefs. However, some potential events and catalysts have the possibility of challenging these core beliefs, forcing people to reevaluate their belief systems to fight these novel challenges. 

The Importance of Belief

As we have established, beliefs are fundamental to the human condition as they allow us to navigate and make sense of the world. Without beliefs, we would live in a senseless reality with no foundation to place our feet upon. However, these are only some of the functions that beliefs serve in relation to human functioning. Over the years, research into the science of beliefs has uncovered fascinating results that demonstrate how beliefs can be leveraged in order to achieve different outcomes, such as increased performance and goal attainment (Crum & Langer, 2007).

Before delving into the technical aspects of this process, we must think of everyday life events where beliefs are responsible for significantly influencing performance for the better or worse. Between peers, family members and even to ourselves, we often hear the phrases: “I believe in you” or “I believe that I will be able to do this”, In contrast, we may equally hear others inform us of their disbelief in our ideas or goals. Consequently, depending on the emotional weight of these statements, our minds will produce drastically different psychological and cognitive reactions to them. More importantly, they have the ability to dictate how we feel and behave towards a given outcome or endeavour. This is one small aspect of how beliefs influence our lives, and research into this domain has revealed astounding results. 

One of the most measurable processes that display the power of beliefs in our lives is called the placebo effect. In psychology, the placebo effect is defined as the improvement of outcomes despite being administered a non-active treatment or stimulus. For example, a placebo effect occurs when a person is told that the intervention being administered will improve their outcomes when they are simply given a neutral intervention that is not proven to change anything. This phenomenon is still barely understood within research. However, the findings from placebo studies all point to one underlying process that makes individuals improve despite having zero evidence for doing so – Belief. More specifically, placebo studies show that despite being given a neutral stimulus or intervention, the simple fact that the individual believes that the stimulus or intervention will help them improve does precisely that.

In a prominent 2007 experiment, researchers Crum and Langer investigated whether they could leverage the placebo effect to produce tangible results in participants (Crum & Langer, 2007). Here, they divided a participant group of 84 female hotel cleaners into two groups and informed one group of 42 cleaners that their work (room cleaning) was a great form of exercise and fulfilled crucial physical needs. For the other group, they said nothing. After four weeks, the group that was informed of their work’s health benefits displayed decreases in weight, blood pressure, waist-to-hip ratio and body mass index. Conversely, the uninformed group displayed no changes over this time interval. Essentially, the experiment demonstrated that the mere effect of believing that something is true provides significant advantages in achieving the believed outcomes. 

Moving beyond this, the findings from this study prompted the main researcher Ali Crum to investigate the degree to which one’s self-ascribed beliefs could influence their subjective reality for the better (Crum & Phillips, 2015). Here, Crum specifically focused on the mindset process and how the underlying beliefs that form a mindset can transform one’s perception of reality to make achieving certain goals a lot easier. This is crucial as it is clear that one’s perception of reality significantly influences their mode of functioning through life. For example, research has shown that a victim mindset (i.e., blame-shifting, non-accountability) has been shown to negatively impact one’s mental health and cognitions (Vries, 2014). On the other hand, those who believe themselves to be accountable and ultimately responsible for their outcomes display much more positive effects on their mental health and wellbeing, despite having events that would otherwise be detrimental to their outcomes (Dweck, 2015).

Hence, Crum found that the simple act of believing that your outcomes will improve is associated with the activation of specific brain areas that decrease stress, increase reward and stimulate the nervous and immune systems positively (Crum & Phillips, 2015). This phenomenon has been officially termed “Belief Effects” in research and has received extensive supporting evidence demonstrating its validity. 

Final Conclusions and Considerations

Belief is an intrinsically human concept that has characterized our evolution and maturation over the centuries. It is important to note that animals may have some beliefs, but they fail to compare to the complexity of human beliefs. To reiterate, beliefs are a form of conviction that an aspect of reality is true to us – We know something is real because our beliefs have confirmed it as a fact. Research has shown that our thoughts and behaviours are strongly associated with our underlying belief systems.

This means that much of our thoughts and actions are made per our belief systems as they act as our map for the world and reality. To simplify this concept, think back to a time when we were presented with evidence that was contrary to our beliefs and how this contrast made us feel. What occurred during this event is called cognitive dissonance (e.g., Chapanis & Chapanis, 1964), and it elicits uncomfortable emotions that most individuals tend to avoid. Here, we begin to understand a framework of why we behave and think in line with our underlying belief systems as they act as our area of comfort and comprehension. 

Beliefs are a fundamental cornerstone of everyday life, but their functions go beyond that. Research has effectively shown that belief can be a deciding factor in whether we succeed or not in a given endeavour. More specifically, researchers such as Alia Crum (2007; 2015) have demonstrated that the mere act of believing something to be true acts as a deciding factor in whether an outcome or goal will be fulfilled or not. This is crucial as it points to the notion that we are largely responsible for our own individual outcomes.


References

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About the author

M. Laroche

Writer and Recovery Assistant in the mental health field