We don't tend to give them a lot of thought, and it's rare to question or doubt them, and yet, our inner beliefs play a crucial role in the way we perceive the world, those around us, and more importantly, the way we see ourselves.
Our beliefs are what inform us of what is correct (well, sometimes) and what is good and right (questionable).
They come so naturally to us that we rarely take any time to consider exactly where they come from. The quickest and easiest guess would be that our beliefs are formed by analysing evidence, weighing up facts and considering rational, plausible or even persuasive arguments - but we would be naive to think that we have much control over our beliefs at all, especially when we aren't aware of them.
It is thought that our beliefs come from three main sources: our evolved psychology, biology and environment.
So, why do we believe things so effortlessly?
The 'cognitive by-product theory of religion' suggests that humans tend to see patterns everywhere and are quick to assume that agents cause events. This can be further illuminated by the 'just-world hypothesis', where we believe the world is fair and people only get what they deserve. 'Good things happen to good people, bad things happen to bad people and if a bad thing happens to a good person - they must have done something to deserve it.'
I'm led to believe that wanting to believe we are inherently good and righteous derives from basic cognition that evolved as a means to be accepted, seen and involved with our tribes. These features were successful tools for our ancestors and have resulted in the modern brain that is primed to see agency and purpose everywhere. It also seems to provide a shortcut for us in making quicker decisions or keeping life simple.
So, where do beliefs come from?
While we no longer appear to be 'tribal' creatures, we are indeed a very social species that rely on those closest to us to inform and shape our beliefs. It is much easier and simpler to believe the people in your tribe over outsiders; this is probably more about belonging than being right.
For our ancestors, being on the right side or in the right tribe was exceedingly more important than being on the right side of the evidence and the wrong side of the tribe.
For perspective, imagine an early human rejected and rebelled against the beliefs of their tribe, regardless of the evidence and whether they were right, it is likely they would have faced exclusion or exile - both could ultimately result in premature death. It was a formidable task to survive alone.
Beliefs are quickly developed but highly resistant to change.
Our beliefs may be built on sand but they are highly resistant to being shaken.
Regardless of where our beliefs originate, by adulthood, we have usually formed stable, internally consistent beliefs that may stay with us for the rest of our lives. This is not to say that our beliefs cannot be changed when presented with new information and evidence, though this is not easy.
Humans have been observed, throughout all history, to have gone to extraordinary lengths to reject new information or evidence that contradicts our existing beliefs and we even purposefully seek out information that only serves to reaffirm our belief(s). This is recognised as confirmation bias. Confirmation bias is a deeply ingrained human trait that blinds us to our beliefs' very nature and validity.
It appears that evidence and rationality seldom play a role in changing a belief. We are more receptive to adjusting our beliefs through persuasive/compelling moral arguments (which do not require fact), or even as simple as being exposed to a new social circle with differing views, which brings us back to our tribal nature of wanting to belong more than wanting to be right.
What about the biology of beliefs?
Interestingly, some of our beliefs may even be rooted in our biology. One example of this is our political beliefs, which seem to be in line with disgust and fear.
When neuroscientist Read Montague worked with a political scientist in the mid-2000s to examine, via neuroimaging, whether political orientation might be partly inherited – their study found that conservatives are generally biologically predisposed to perceiving the world as threatening and having stronger reactions to violence or even rubbish in the streets.
“As Montague mapped the neuroimaging data against ideology, he recalls, “my jaw dropped.” The brains of liberals and conservatives reacted in wildly different ways to repulsive pictures: Both groups reacted, but different brain networks were stimulated. Just by looking at the subjects’ neural responses, Montague could predict with more than 95 per cent accuracy whether they were liberal or conservative.” – Read here.
While our beliefs encourage individuality and the world would be incredibly boring without differing beliefs, it would probably be a better world if we all stopped believing in our beliefs so strongly and were more receptive to picking them apart and understanding where they come from.
How do I know when a belief isn't mine?
We see it happen all the time, more notably in LGBTQIA situations where the rest of the family are particularly stubborn and rooted in their beliefs that homosexuality is "wrong" and the person within the LGBTQIA group is often shunned, punished and kicked out of their family home. They face insurmountable rejection that would've outright killed our ancestors and still leads to a staggering amount of death today.
Now, the fact is that over 1,000 species of animals are known to engage in homosexual activities. The belief screams "this is wrong!" What is more important? The fact, or the belief?
You'll know when a belief is not yours because it feels uncomfortable to express. You'll feel a sense of unease. You might even experience anxiety or feelings of shame or guilt when expressing the belief. You may feel it's necessary to keep your belief or simply not challenge it because you're worried about the reactions of your loved ones should you change or challenge it.
Questions to ask before accepting your belief:
What are the facts?
What does everybody else think?
What are my feelings about this?
Does it invoke strong psychological or physiological responses?
Have I looked at all of the available information or am I only seeking out what reinforces my existing belief? (Falling victim to confirmation bias)
What is the opposing belief? Is it possible it is more rational, fair and kind?
Does my belief cause harm to others?
Are my feelings more important than the facts?
It appears that taking on the beliefs of others serves to make our lives easier and safer because we're less likely to be rejected and kicked out of our "tribes" if we share the same or at least very similar beliefs. By maintaining the same beliefs as our loved ones, we stand more of a chance of being accepted and valued. This goes back to our tribal nature and is more about survival than our actual, genuine beliefs.
It seems while our inner beliefs can stem from our biology, they're mostly influenced by external factors and while facts play little to no part in changing them, being exposed to a new social circle can be enough to 180 your beliefs. And once again, for a fairly prideful species, this isn't about being right. It's about belonging.