I sort of believe that
How beliefs are often more nuanced than they first appear
Much is written about the apparent irrationality of people who appear to believe in a position which seems to be very much at odds with the facts of a situation. For example, climate denial is often explained as being based on how people process scientific information about climate in a way that conforms to pre-existing feelings and beliefs. We are motivated to deny the facts that are at odds with our beliefs as they feel threating and we would prefer to avoid them.
While this is surely part of the reason that people avoid to engage with certain types of information, can we be confident that this is the only reason? Something that perhaps does not always get sufficiently close attention is the nature of belief itself. It is all too easy for us to assume that someone else’s beliefs are fully formed and developed – your belief in something means that you have a thorough formed belief. But it is not quite a simple as that.
Sociologist Zeynep Tufekci recently published a column in the New York Times looking at the beliefs of people in the US who were unvaccinated for COVID. She was referencing research from the COVID States Project, an academic consortium that managed to collates resources for regular polling.
One of their findings was that a significant portion of the unvaccinated public was confused and concerned, rather than absolutely opposed to vaccines. In fact, they found that only about 12 percent of the unvaccinated considered they would not benefit from a vaccine. Indeed, many of the unvaccinated had other health conditions and were worried about adverse reactions. We have seen the exact same issue play out with pregnant women, with recent figures from England, finding one in six critically ill patients are unvaccinated pregnant women with Covid.
What these figures point towards is less that those who are unvaccinated are adamant in their beliefs opposing vaccination but instead have legitimate concerns and are often struggling to work out the best course of action. In this context belief is multi-shaded not a simple response to the question of do you believe? It is a far more graded and complex response, rather than a discrete yes or no response.
And of course, let’s not forget that beliefs change over time. Ipsos polling found ‘vaccine hesitancy’ for COVID-19 dropping over the course of the pandemic. Sometimes we need time to decide what we believe.
There are surely many ways in which our beliefs can be quite nuanced. We examined the different ‘styles’ of belief we come up against in a variety of the work we do and observed a number of ways these styles appear:
Suspension of disbelief: We know not to look too closely at something – we think that overall it is a good thing (e.g. recycling) but aware of possible discrepancies (e.g. being poorly disposed of) that may or may not lead us to question our positive beliefs. We are aware of the possible conflicts but this does not make our belief in the value of recycling any less valid. There are a great many beliefs that we have that could be challenged yet they serve us sufficiently well that we do not need to interrogate them too closely (political representation, eating meat)
Inconsistent beliefs: Linked to this, we may hold two conflicting beliefs at the same time. We may know that wild fires are a natural phenomenon that predates climate change; but also that the fires we see in many areas today are of a much greater intensity and frequency. Exactly which is responsible cannot really be picked out, we can only really see the patterns emerging at a more macro-level, so it is not unreasonably to either hold both as true for even consider that the fire you have experience is a normal wild fire.
Off-loading beliefs to others: Much of the time our beliefs about how things work is not something that we each individually work out, but we rely on a community of knowledge to work on our behalf. How many of us can be sure that our beliefs are correct about how vaccines work or indeed even how a zipper work. If we are questioned, then we recognise that our belief about how something works is tenuous but we have a good enough sense of it that allows us to function.
Unformed beliefs: Sometimes we have not quite worked out what our beliefs are about something, which means that we may well move about in those beliefs or in the strength to which we hold onto them. The vaccination example outlined earlier is a good case in point.
Not sure fully believe it but ‘there is something in it’ beliefs: Recent work we have been doing on Conspiracy Theories suggests that people may consider something is believable (e.g. Princess Diana’s death in a car crash was not accidental) but at the same time, in a different question then say they ‘do not fully believe it but there is something in it’. So what might seem like a belief is actually something much more akin to a questioning stance.
This informal collection of ‘belief styles’ inevitably has some overlap between them but nevertheless shows the way in which, when we look closely, beliefs are not quite as one dimensional as we might sometimes expect them to be.
Of course, there will always be a proportion of the population that hold beliefs in a more definitive manner. They may also vigorously promote those beliefs and as such attract our attention. But we need to be wary about assuming that a small and more vocal group reflects the way most people hold their beliefs.
When we see commentary that people are in denial, perhaps we should question what that actually means, for implicit in the assertion is the notion that people are firm in a particular belief. But can we really believe that is necessarily so? We suggest thoughtful survey work is needed to unpick, not only what people believe, but the manner in which they hold that belief.