Where do our beliefs come from?

by on December 14, 2007 at 7:43 am in Economics, Philosophy, Religion | Permalink

We all like to think that our beliefs come from rational thinking, deep experience and good judgment.  But suppose that you had to predict someone else’s beliefs, let’s say their beliefs about taxes, welfare, regulation….economic policy of all kind.  Let’s put some money on it, the better your predictions the more money you make. 

I will give you one piece of information to improve your predictions.  Either I will tell you whether the person whose beliefs you must predict is an economist or a biologist or I will tell you whether the person whose beliefs you must predict is American or French.  Which piece of information do you want?

What does this say about where beliefs come from?

Addendum: Suppose I asked you instead to predict the types of arguments that the person will use to justify their beliefs.  Now which piece of information do you want?  What is the role of education in determining beliefs?

1 Tyler Cowen December 14, 2007 at 8:01 am

Nationality, noting that in some countries a small elite believes something totally different from the average citizen. Haiti would be an example there, though a Haitian biologist and economist would still be pretty close in orientation.

2 michael vassar December 14, 2007 at 8:32 am

Beliefs of all kinds is simply too vague. Without specific examples I have no idea what you mean. Beliefs about food would probably be more effected by nationality. In general, are we only looking at people who are either economists or biologists? Surely having an advanced degree of any type will have a larger effect on beleifs than nationality compared to the average member of the population. Beliefs about proton pumps would definitely be more effected by being a biologist. I don’t have a strong opinion about whether what they call an “economist” in France belongs to the category we Americans would call an “economist” rather than, say, a “sociologist”, but I would expect a great deal more consensus among American and French “neoclassical economists”, which is almost what “economist” means to me, then I would between American and French citizens and neoclassical economists of the same nationality.

3 Frank December 14, 2007 at 8:57 am

Maybe occupation (biologist or economist) doesn’t say anything about how we choose our beliefs. Instead, maybe it indicates that people who hold certain beliefs are more inclined toward some disciplines than others.

4 Mike December 14, 2007 at 9:29 am

I just wish everyone would read Ayn Rand, because that’s where most beliefs SHOULD come from, and out society would be so much better if we took her prescriptions to heart.

5 Ben December 14, 2007 at 9:53 am

I know you are giving the example to make your question concrete, but it oversimplifies. The origins of an individual’s beliefs are very complex. Whatever are the “most important” experiences in her life are likely to be the major determinants. For some people these are religious experiences, for some educational/intellectual experiences, for some personal tragedies, etc. However beliefs are also the result of a cumulative process I think. One’s current beliefs are a function of recent experiences, past beliefs and “rational thinking, deep experience and good judgment”.
Therefore when you try to boil it down to a choice between nationality and occupation (1) this oversimplifies the possible answers and (2) oversimplifies the character of belief formation. Further the answer to your question would be different if you chose two different countries and occupations (say France/England and artist/investment banker).
The second question you ask about justifying beliefs may have a simpler answer. More often than not this is probably most directly related to a person’s occupation or training.

6 Ben December 14, 2007 at 10:03 am

But people’s beliefs do vary by profession and nationality (among other things), Robin. In fact, a post on MR last week showed that people’s beliefs about how to treat their parents vary widely across countries. Maybe we have different definitions of “beliefs” in mind…

7 Jeff H. December 14, 2007 at 10:08 am

Robin, forgive me if you’ve already discussed this somewhere, but what are your thoughts about living in a different culture as a means of overcoming bias?

In my experience, integrating into a different culture virtually forces one to confront basic assumption about one’s thinking–the result for me was to at least recognize more of my biases, if not exactly overcome all of them.

8 Diversity December 14, 2007 at 10:46 am

At 74, my experience is deeper than I like. My judgement is, in relative terms, not too bad. I am addicted to rational thinking.

More than 60 years ago, I used to be asked in an American classroom to stand up and make a plaedge including the words “I believe …”. It started me asking what that word believe meant. I still have not pinned that meaning down.

That said, I saw the idea of believing being sucessfully propagated in the classrooms of the USA. However, the only “beliefs” that practically all Americans share are in “life, liberty , property, and the pursuit of happiness.” One joyous thing about the USA is that the rest of the beliefs of individual citizens are unpredictable. It is the only country where it would be unsurprising to find a creationist astronomer (a species that the Head of the Papal Observatory says does not exist).

So I would choose American or French. This is because a great many of the French would deny that they hold “creances”; though by Heaven they have biases!

9 Ben December 14, 2007 at 11:00 am

Any economist worth anything should concede that you and Deirdre McCloskey have an important point to make. But advertising your new book on someone else’s blog under a post only tangentially related to the topic of the book turns people off and makes you seem even more shrill and less scientific.

10 Jason December 14, 2007 at 11:27 am

only one? eye color.

11 sally December 14, 2007 at 12:14 pm

The first line cracked me up. Perhaps belief in the rationality of one’s beliefs is itself an overprotected belief.

12 michael vassar December 14, 2007 at 12:36 pm

Robin; beliefs should influence your choice of profession, and sometimes even choice of nationality. Influence just should not flow in the opposite direction.

Steve has the right to be shrill on this. We’re good rationalists here. There are few pieces of info that are critically important to understanding the world, and few fora frequented by many good rationalists. Let all the former echo through all the later. That said, Overcoming Bias might be an even more appropriate place to post.

13 MIchael Blowhard December 14, 2007 at 1:39 pm

Fun posting and comments.

My 2 cents: Aren’t there many different kinds of belief? For example: “I believe this pencil will drop to the floor if it rolls over the edge of this desk” vs. “I belive in reincarnation” vs. “I believe my boss will have a fit if I don’t tell her what she wants to hear.” So if you want to talk about where beliefs come from, wouldn’t it be helpful to separate out the various kinds of belief we might be talking about?

Hey, another two cents. You write: “We all like to think that our beliefs come from rational thinking, deep experience and good judgment.” Am I really the only exception to this among MR readers? I mean, yes, I do want to believe that my belief that this pencil will fall if it rolls over the edge of the desk is a sensible one. But where Bigger Thoughts and Bigger Convictions go? God only knows where they come from, and that’s OK with me.

But maybe this is a diff between economists and civilians?

14 Tony December 14, 2007 at 2:13 pm

We all like to think that our beliefs come from rational thinking, deep experience and good judgment.

No, not all of us.

Personally? I don’t believe in ideas. I use them. Sometimes they work as intended, sometimes not. Truth has no meaning to me; there are only actions and consequences, and our grasp on the connection between the two is, at best, tenuous and uncertain.

IMHO, people who “believe” things are simpletons. Skepticism is more powerful than any belief.

Or, at least, that is an idea which I deploy in decision-making processes. I don’t actually believe it.

15 Francesca December 14, 2007 at 3:29 pm

Alex’s questions about beliefs and their determinants may be better framed in terms of “values.” Where do people get their values, and how are those values expressed in their personal and public lives? The late political scientist Aaron Wildavsky and cultural anthropologist Dame Mary Douglas collaborated on a number of seminal studies relating to cultural theory.

I have just a passing knowledge of their work, but it has always been intriguing. Wildavsky’s classification scheme for values notes four: hierarchicalist, egalitarian, individualist, and fatalist. While people may exhibit characteristics along this value grid, nationalities and cultural groups also may do so.

16 Steve Ziliak December 14, 2007 at 7:07 pm

I agree: shameless self-promotion isn’t cool on other people’s websites. Wasn’t feeling like a tourist in that sad land but okay fair enough: mea culpa. But you have to admit this: I give a scholarly account for the source of my ideas about belief! Anyway, I’m pleased you seem to agree with the other point, the point about significance testing versus hypothesis testing. Perhaps you might admit my words had something to do with “belief”? Oh yes, and to Alex’s original question concerning what kinds of arguments people will use to justify their beliefs (to themselves or to others) we should add to apostrophy and the others on the list “ad hominem appeals,” positive and negative, random and not! Steve

17 adam December 14, 2007 at 10:06 pm

What about from your parents? Most people get their political party and their religion from their parents.

18 Steve December 15, 2007 at 11:59 am

Dear Jay and Ben and Other Ad Hominers,

Quit your silly attacks. If you care about the conversation, you’ll attend to the Maxim of Presumed Seriousness. I do, and did. I gave a serious reply to Alex’s serious question about “belief.” Did you? Or are you only finding opportunities to cheaply insult people? For example, Jay, if Jay is your name, “Ziliak” didn’t “quote” Ziliak and McCloskey. Never have in 15 years, thank you very much. You’re quite mistaken if you think I gave the whole of the book (it’s being published in Tyler’s book series: but judging from your sharp and intimately personal tone – though we are strangers – I guess you already knew that). I gave a new way to think about “beliefs gone wrong” – probabilistic and relationship-wise – in economics and other sciences. Ad hominem attacks will not be tolerated and are anyway I’m sure capricious beyond your years. Regards, Steve

p.s. To Alex’s types-of-arguments question: “irony,” said Kenneth Burke in The Grammar of Motives, is the master trope, and people reveal, defend, and re-shape their beliefs with it, too. A great example of irony working to reveal and defend “belief” in the history of church music is Henry Purcell’s (1659-1695) “Christus Paradox,” a piece that is worth hearing performed (if one can find the pounds) at Westminster Abbey. In economics Hirschman’s “perversity thesis” (which is discussed in his neglected little book on _The Rhetoric of Reaction_) gives an example of how irony gets used in a formal regard (as in church music) to reveal and defend a belief against purposive government action. Basically, all parts of rhetoric are used to talk about belief.

19 Tracy W December 15, 2007 at 2:20 pm

Well so far all the French economists I know are heavily on the libertarian side, even more so than your typical American economist. Meanwhile all the biologists I know tend to be left-wing (though admittedly none of them are American or French).

Meanwhile I know a lot of French socialists and a lot of American socialists.

So, based on my current biased background information, I’d go for knowing occupation.

20 Michael Blowhard December 15, 2007 at 3:19 pm

Why are people jumping on Steve? I found his comment interesting, and had I not I’d simply have skipped reading it. It’s not like it was a spam comment. And why are people policing this thread anyway? Isn’t that function best left to Alex and Tyler?

21 bobs December 16, 2007 at 10:22 am

There is a distinction between believing, which is an act of the will, and knowing, which is an act of the intellect, that is as useful and as fuzzy as the distinction between positive and normative (and actually quite similar). A lot of controversy in the public sphere (including both politics and religion) seems to arise because one group claims as belief something that others consider part of knowledge. The debate (if it deserves that name) on evolution is an example. Positions about economics that may be a matter of belief for non-economists are often matters of knowledge for economists. Our ways of viewing the world are a complex mix of belief and knowledge that is very difficult, and maybe impossible, to disentangle. (And I am not sure how much of what I have just written is a matter of belief and how much is a matter of knowing.)

22 Kid Marine December 17, 2007 at 6:25 pm

(my response, sorry if I covered something you guys already did. I deliberately avoided reading anybody else’s opinion so I could come up with an unbiased answer)

Hmm…I think I would prefer knowing their employment (economist or biologist), and the reason I say this is simple: Basically when a nation is run by a leader that is largely disliked, the people tend to be antipathetic toward the nation as well as the president, regardless of their own beliefs. If I was told that the subject was American, I would have to assume that they are part of the 75% of our nation’s populous that is dissatisfied with our president, and (by my logic) that means that they are also dissatisfied with the nation. I can’t grasp a good idea of what this person thinks, because their judgment has been clouded by animosity toward the nation.

But let’s say that the person is part of the 25% that is totally satisfied with our nation’s status. Well, I still can’t put my finger on their beliefs, because their judgment would be clouded by complacency. With biologists and economists, we typically can’t look at the two and analyze approval ratings, opinion polls, and the like. So I think I would much rather know the work field, not the nation.

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30 liss April 9, 2010 at 4:36 am

I have just a passing knowledge of their work, but it has always been intriguing. Wildavsky’s
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classification scheme for values notes four: hierarchicalist, egalitarian, individualist, and fatalist. While people may exhibit characteristics along this value grid, nationalities and cultural groups also may do so.

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