Friday, November 9, 2007

The Formation Of Belief

Beliefs can come from two sources: our own experience and reflections, or as a blind acceptance of what other people tell us. These are very different methods and are often based on very different attitudes to (and beliefs about!) the world and people around us.


Self-generated beliefs are those we create ourselves. People who generally prefer to self-generate are often confident and curious. They seek truth over comfort and social acceptance. They may be distrusting of experts and other authorities. They prefer argument and debate to quick and blind acceptance. They are willing to live with uncertainty and ambiguity until their belief is formed.


'Experience is a hard master, but a fool will have no other.' It has a ring of truth about it, but also is the ultimate method we have of finding the truth. Trying things for ourselves is how we start out as children and we continue to use this approach more or less, depending on a range of factors including parental guidance and the level and style of education we received.

Experience means trying things out in practice, observing things and generally getting a lot broader range of evidence before committing to a belief. Unfortunately we only have time try a limited number of things and what we do try out can say a lot about us.


A variation on external experimentation is internal reflection and thought. It is a lot easier and can often be done much quicker. It can be done in most places, although it is best done when there are less external distractions.

Reflection includes general musing about things and building internal mental models which help to explain the world around you.

In some ways reflection is opposite to experience in that it is internal rather than external. It can also be complementary as you either reflect after an experience or seek experiences after internal reflection.


The alternative to finding things out for yourself is to take on board things that others have found out. People who generally prefer to accept beliefs from others have a greater need for a sense of control. They tend to seek certainty and seek closure. They also are likely to have a greater tendency to trust others and to seek trustworthiness, although perhaps only in specific areas.


Experts are people who have proven themselves to have knowledge in particular areas. They may have qualifications or demonstrable and skills. They are often professionals who are paid for their expertise. When they tell you something, you have good reason to believe it.

Experts can be met in person or they may have written books or other media you can access. However you access their knowledge or skill, you trust them because you believe they are expert.

People who seek experts are relatively pragmatic. They trust, but not blindly. They are looking for someone to help in a specific area.


The difference between an expert and an authority is that you believe the authority because of their position or charismatic powers, and not because of any reasonable proof that they know well what they are talking about.

Managers, priests, and parents all offer beliefs based on their position rather than their expertise. In fact we all do it when we get into arguments where we tell rather than seek to persuade.

People who believe authorities are followers. They believe in the sanctity of position or are gullible and easy to persuade. They are likely to have a strong need for belonging and social approval. They may single out specific people who they will belief blindly. Cult leaders seek to place themselves in this position.

- From Changing (link in the title)

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