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What science says about beliefs — and why we cling to them

It turns out that our feelings of “rightness” that accompany our religious and political beliefs tend to be rooted in basic biology.

Members of the Italian community take part in a re-enactment of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ on Good Friday in Bensheim, southwest of Frankfurt, Germany, on Friday.
REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach

This week’s issue of New Scientist has a long and fascinating article about what scientists have discovered about “the powerful and very human attribute we call belief.”

“Beliefs define how we see the world and act within it; without them, there would be no plots to behead soldiers, no war, no economic crises and no racism,” writes Graham Lawton, a deputy editor at the London-based magazine. “There would also be no cathedrals, no nature reserves, no science and no art. Whatever beliefs you hold, it’s hard to imagine life without them. Beliefs, more than anything else, are what make us human. They also come so naturally that we rarely stop to think how bizarre belief is.”

We also apparently have a lot less control over our beliefs than we, um, believe we do.

Religious beliefs

Scientists have identified three main sources for the “feeling of rightness” that accompanies our beliefs, reports Lawton: “our evolved psychology, personal biological differences and the society we keep.”

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“The importance of evolved psychology is illuminated by perhaps the most important belief system of all: religion,” he writes.

Although the specifics vary widely, religious belief per se is remarkably similar across the board. Most religions feature a familiar cast of characters: supernatural agents, life after death, moral directives and answers to existential questions. Why do so many people believe such things so effortlessly?

According to the cognitive by-product theory of religion, their intuitive rightness springs from basic features of human cognition that evolved for other reasons. In particular, we tend to assume that agents cause events. A rustle in the undergrowth could be a predator or it could just be the wind, but it pays to err on the side of caution; our ancestors who assumed agency would have survived longer and had more offspring. Likewise, our psychology has evolved to seek out patterns because this was a useful survival strategy. During the dry season, for example, animals are likely to congregate by a water hole, so that’s where you should go hunting. Again, it pays for this system to be overactive.

This potent combination of hypersensitive “agenticity” and “patternicity” has produced a human brain that is primed to see agency and purpose everywhere. And agency and purpose are two of religion’s most important features — particularly the idea of an omnipotent but invisible agent that makes things happen and gives meaning to otherwise random events. In this way, humans are naturally receptive to religious claims, and when we first encounter them — typically as children — we unquestioningly accept them. There is a “feeling of rightness” about them that originates deep in our cognitive architecture.

Political beliefs

As for the feeling of “rightness” that accompanies our political beliefs — it tends to be rooted in our basic biology, reports Lawton.

Conservatives, for example, generally react more fearfully than liberals to threatening images, scoring higher on measures of arousal such as skin conductance and eye-blink rate. This suggests they perceive the world as a more dangerous place and perhaps goes some way to explaining their stance on issues like law and order and national security. 

Another biological reflex that has been implicated in political belief is disgust. As a general rule, conservatives are more easily disgusted by stimuli like fart smells and rubbish. And disgust tends to make people of all political persuasions more averse to morally suspect behaviour, though the response is stronger in conservatives. This has been proposed as an explanation for differences of opinion over important issues such as gay marriage and illegal immigration. Conservatives often feel strong revulsion at these violations of the status quo and so judge them to be morally unacceptable. Liberals are less easily disgusted and less likely to judge them so harshly.

The company we keep

And then there is the strong role that culture plays — not only in forming our beliefs, but also in reinforcing their “rightness.” Writes Lawton:

Many of our fundamental beliefs are formed during childhood. … [T]he process begins as soon as we are born, based initially on sensory perception — that objects fall downwards, for example — and later expands to more abstract ideas and propositions. …

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This isn’t simply about proximity; it is also about belonging. Our social nature means that we adopt beliefs as badges of cultural identity. This is often seen with hot-potato issues, where belonging to the right tribe can be more important than being on the right side of the evidence. Acceptance of climate change, for example, has become a shibboleth in the US — conservatives on one side, liberals on the other. Evolution, vaccination and others are similarly divisive issues.

Fixed and resistant to facts

By the time we’ve reached adulthood, our beliefs are usually quite fixed, whether rational or not, research shows. And when presented with facts that contradict those beliefs, we more likely than not find ways to either reject those facts or interpret them in ways that let us keep our current beliefs.

“That’s not to say that people’s beliefs cannot change,” says Lawton. “Presented with enough contradictory information, we can and do change our minds. Many atheists, for example, reason their way to irreligion. Often, though, rationality doesn’t even triumph here. Instead, we are more likely to change our beliefs in response to a compelling moral argument — and when we do, we reshape the facts to fit with our new belief. More often than not, though, we simply cling to our beliefs.”

The article is featured on the cover of the March 31 issue of the New Scientist.