Beliefs Are Complicated

By Linda Fisher Thornton

Part 1 in the Truth and Misinformation: How to Spot False Narratives series explored truth and narrative, and Part 2 examined how data and motives relate to the truth. Part 3 addressed the importance of media literacy. In this follow up, we take a deeper look at truth and belief.

It turns out that beliefs are complicated. How do we know if our beliefs are actually true?

“Many people don’t realize that every thought that pops into their heads isn’t true, and they are unable to decipher authentic beliefs from false ones.”

— Mike Oppland, How Psychology Combats False and Self-Limiting Beliefs

But if we learn to manage the automatic messages popping into our heads all day long, we’ll be able to tell the difference, right? Not necessarily.

As July Beck says in This Article Won’t Change Your Mind, in The Atlantic, “There are facts, and there are beliefs, and there are things you want so badly to believe that they become as facts to you.”

At least we change our minds when presented with the facts, don’t we? If we’re presented with facts that contradict our beliefs don’t we automatically change them? Not necessarily.

“Unfortunately, we still form beliefs without vetting most of them, and maintain them even after receiving clear, corrective information.”

Annie Duke, Why Your Brain Clings To False Beliefs (Even When It Knows Better), Fast Company

Daniel DeNicola writes in his Psyche article You Don’t Have a Right To Believe Whatever You Want To that “Beliefs aspire to truth – but they do not entail it. Beliefs can be false, unwarranted by evidence or reasoned consideration. They can also be morally repugnant.

Trendwatching.com says in The Fight For Facts that “consumers’ ramped- up search for news prompted a misinformation avalanche, what the World Health Organization (WHO) calls an infodemic’.

People often share a new piece of information they believe to be true in haste without considering the repercussions. Is it unethical to share a false belief that could cause harm to others? Yes. It violates many ethical principles including truthfulness, trustworthiness, respect, care, and “do no harm.”

“Information on Twitter (and other social platforms that use short and fast messages) is particularly likely to be evaluated based on emotional responses with little input from higher cognitive functions.”

—Tali Sharot, Why People Can’t Agree on Basic Facts, Time

We’ve been focusing on whether or not we can trust other people, but it turns out the problem is much closer than we realized. It turns out that we can’t always trust ourselves. Annie Duke suggests in her Fast Company article Why Your Brain Clings To False Beliefs (Even When It Knows Better): that “the next time you argue with someone over something you believe to be true, step back and ask yourself how you came to this conclusion.”

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