Belief: What it Means to Believe and Why Our Convictions are so Compelling

Belief  is an important new book by James E. Alcock. An extensive review of the book by Harriet Hall can be found on the Science-Based Medicine website.

Alcock explains the biological and psychological reasons convictions are so powerful that people will believe outrageous claims and obvious lies that conform to their convictions while dismissing clear evidence that contradicts them.

In the final chapter, A Firewall to Folly, Alcock offers ideas for mitigating the power of beliefs. These ideas can also be described as a how-to guide for becoming a healthy skeptic. They fall into two categories: dispositions (D) and critical thinking strategies (CTS), particularly parsing. Dispositions are mindsets or attitudes that open the mind to flexible and critical thinking. Each of the items below are labelled with its category.

  1. Remember that we can all be fooled (D).
  2. Be wary of your intuitions (D).
  3. Be wary of the Fundamental Attribution Error, attributing people’s behavior to their characters and intentions while overlooking the power of the situation (CTS).
  4. Be wary of validation by personal experience (CTS).
  5. Don’t rely on a single source of information (CTS).
  6. Don’t over-interpret correlations (CTS).
  7. Ask “compared to what?” – a wine was rejected because it was found to contain two million asbestos particles per liter, but the concentration of asbestos particles in the city water supply was higher than that (CTS).
  8. In the face of inadequate evidence, suspend judgment rather than jumping to conclusions (D).

Finally, he reminds us that critical thinking means we should be prepared to disagree with ourselves (D). In other words, question our beliefs and be open to changing them when presented with new information or evidence.

Alcock’s ideas complement the ideas in HOT Skills. Adults can model these dispositions and demonstrate the strategies, name and explain them to students, and, when opportune, teach them in developmentally and culturally appropriate ways.


Executive Function: What is its Relationship to Higher-Order Thinking?

As defined by the Center for the Developing Child at Harvard University:

Executive function (and self-regulation) skills are the mental processes that enable us to plan, focus attention, remember instructions, and juggle multiple tasks successfully. ‘…the brain needs this skill set to filter distractions, prioritize tasks, set and achieve goals, and control impulses.’

These skills rely on three main brain functions:

Working Memory, which governs our ability to retain and manipulate distinct pieces of information over short periods of time.

Mental Flexibility, which helps us to sustain or shift attention in response to different demands or to apply different rules in different settings.

Self-Control, which enables us to set priorities and resist impulsive actions or responses.

It’s helpful to regard executive function as a set of mental capacities and regard thinking skills as mental abilities. People with higher levels of executive function have a greater capacity for higher-order thinking than people with lower levels. However, that capacity will be unrealized if a person is not able to use higher-order thinking skills. In addition, greater mental capacity (i.e., higher levels of executive function) facilitates the ability to use more advanced levels of any and all thinking skills, whether lower-, middle-, or higher-order.

In the following analogy, a computer represents executive function and the person using the computer represents thinking skills. An inexpensive, basic-level, slow computer has limited capacity. It is difficult, but not impossible, to do sophisticated computing if the user has strong computer abilities and a lot of patience. If the user does not have strong computer skills, the computer still has practical utility to perform basic functions such as word processing, organizing files, sending and receiving email, etc. Here, there is a good match between the computer and the user. A high-end computer has tremendous capacity to do many things quickly. But the user with only basic computer abilities will not be able to take advantage of its capacity, while the user with strong computer abilities can find almost unlimited uses, including many that are unique and creative. Again, here there is a good match between the computer and the user.

Preschool Example:

While Teacher Tony is reading Caps for Sale to the group, the fire alarm rings. Fortunately, it is just a fire drill. Fifteen minutes later, when everyone is back in the classroom, Teacher Tony asks, “Where did we leave off in our story? What was the last thing that happened?” This is a challenging, more advanced lower-order thinking task (recall from memory) for most preschoolers because the interruption was long, emotional, complex, and particularly distracting. It was a little frightening, it involved following multiple directions, required physical movement and a change of environment, and was an uncommon, untypical activity.  The children with a high level of focused attention (engaged while they were listening to the story before the fire drill) and with a strong working memory, were able to recall the last thing that happened in the story:  the peddler woke up and saw that monkeys were wearing his caps.

 Third Grade Example:

As part of a science/math unit on scientific methods and basic data analysis, third graders in Ms. Rodriguez’s class work in small groups to create a process and tools (e.g., questionnaires, surveys, tally sheets) to get the opinions of students in the school about how to address common concerns and problems. Each group takes a different issue such as the quality of food in the cafeteria, recesses being too short, teachers giving too much homework, bullying on the playground, etc. They will also collect information about each student’s gender, grade level, birth order, number of siblings, and favorite school subject. Ms. Rodriguez knows that each group needs at least one student whose good self-control gives them the capacity to use advanced lower- and middle-order thinking skills to plan, organize, and keep the group on track. In other words, attend to details. Each group also needs at least one student whose strong working memory and mental flexibility gives them the capacity to use higher-order thinking skills to hypothesize outcomes, anticipate potential problems, generate ideas, synthesize and interpret information, and analyze the data. In other words, see the big picture.









Perception vs Reality



On almost every measure, people perceive things to be much worse than they actually are! Since 2012, statisticians from the British-based research  firm, IPSOShave conducted a large international survey of the perceptions of tens of thousands of people on a wide range of issues including rates of teen pregnancy, violent crime, terrorism, obesity, happiness, and the percentage of Muslims in their country’s population. Then they compare these perceptions to the actual numbers. 

The discrepancies are much greater for issues that people fear the most, which varies greatly from country to county. Americans think that 17% of the population is Muslim, but it is only one percent (16 point gap). French people believe that 31% of the population is Muslim, but it is only 8% (23 point gap). In countries with less negative press about Muslims and fewer incidents of attacks by Islamic extremists, the perception/reality gap is much narrower. In Norway, Muslims make up five percent of the population, while Norwegians perceive it to be 11% (6 point gap). Note that they still get it very wrong; believing it to be more than twice what it actually is.

But, there are also differences among countries in the overall accuracy of their citizens’ perceptions. Germans and Swedes are the most accurate, while Italians and Americans are the least accurate.

Why do so many people misperceive reality so dramatically? There are many complex reasons, but chief among them are a lack of critical thinking skills and an inability to counter thinking errors and biases, particularly confirmation bias.

Here’s an excellent 25 minute video by the lead researcher, Bobby Duffy, describing the study and sharing some of the key findings. He also suggests ideas for improving the situation. Click on his name below the photo to access the video.

Duffy Book


And here is a link to the book, “Perils of Perception”