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.


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”