Doug Bonderud

May 11th 2022

Belief System Basics: Exploring the Opinion Imperative


It happens to all of us eventually. Someone challenges a strongly held opinion, and we’re faced with a dilemma: dig in our heels or give their perspective a fair shake.

While it’s easy to imagine a scenario that involves a good-natured back-and-forth, the reality is often less amenable and more argumentative. Why? Because despite best efforts at agnostic information exchange, we all carry around a complex and ever-changing belief system that informs our opinions and drives our actions. But where do these beliefs come from? Why are they so strongly held, and if we’re wrong (“No, you’re wrong!”), how do we kick-start the process of change?

Being Is Believing

Whether we know it or not, we all have a system of beliefs. As noted by research from Spain’s University of Alicante, “Every human being has a belief system that they utilize, and it is through this mechanism that we individually ‘make sense’ of the world around us.” By creating narratives about what’s happening, why and how, we’re better able to navigate and overcome challenges that come our way. The Alicante article defines several key characteristics of belief systems:

  • Values. Values are often “abstract summaries of behavioral attitudes” that are developed in response to action and then become codified over time.
  • Substantive Beliefs. Driven by values, substantive beliefs are the most important tenants of a belief system — the big ideas that drive the narrative at scale.
  • Language. Belief systems also use language to define logical rules that relate substantive beliefs to each other in a system, in turn providing a framework for action.
  • Prescriptions. Prescriptions speak to the actions and norms that are part of the belief system: the things that are done — or avoided — to ensure alignment with substantive beliefs.

These elements are further defined by personal commitment. Greater personal commitment due to environmental, societal or even economic factors can create shared systems of belief that expand both their reach and relevance. A quick glance at human history shows both the power and potential problems that come with shared beliefs.

Their output notwithstanding, however, believing is tied to being. But is it naturally occurring?

Navigating Nature and Nurture

Not surprisingly, belief systems develop from both nature and nurture. The beliefs of parents and other family members influence those of children. Over time, this may lead to a reinforcement of beliefs or a rebellion that sees a stark divergence from existing norms. Here, nurture tells the tale — experiences in family environments play a substantive role in the formation of opinions.

As noted by the American Psychological Association, however, there’s also a genetic component to these beliefs. While genetics aren’t directly responsible for specific attitudes and opinions, genetic factors can influence personality and perception which, in turn, govern belief. This is often shown through studies that examine twins who have markedly different life experiences but still share similar beliefs.

Well, That’s One Opinion

Opinions are like… well, you probably know the saying. But despite its less-than-savory language, the idea is spot-on: Everyone has an opinion. The problem? They can’t all be right at the same time.

Some opinions are strongly held but have little in the way of substance. Others are more flexible even if there’s ample evidence to support them. No matter the parameters, however, they share a common source: Your belief system. Put simply, what you believe involves connected webs of opinions informed by your existence and experience. As a result, it’s easy to conflate what you know to be true with something your belief system tells you is true.

Consider an experiment on how our brains process information by researchers from Ben-Gurion University and Hebrew University in Israel that first had participants rate the grammatical accuracy of sentences they read and then rate their agreement with the positions espoused by those sentences. When reading statements they agreed with, participants had no problem verifying the grammar. When they disagreed, it took longer to inspect and evaluate the sentence structure. The results suggest that when it comes to processing belief-driven material, our brains work differently right down to grammar, making it easier to parse what we already agree with and more difficult to lend credence to opposing views.

Facing Facts

So how do you get someone — or how can someone get you — to shift strongly held opinions? Facts seem like the most obvious answer, but as personal experience has probably pinpointed, this often goes off the rails.

But why? Human history plays a role in this facts vs. opinions debate. In historical environments where a matter of seconds could make the difference between life and death, taking the time to analyze opinions for factual accuracy wasn’t a great use of time. And while we now have the greater luxury of time, our brains still carry over this opinionated action.

Consider a psychological study from Stanford in which participants were divided into two groups: those in favor of capital punishment and those against. Both groups were given two (fictitious) studies to read that were also for and against and contained a host of seemingly legitimate statistics. If pure reason was the reality of the human condition, you’d expect the groups to meet in the middle, but — you guessed it — both believed more strongly in their original position after having seen the supposed evidence.

What happened? Put simply, the existence of opposing information didn’t create food for thought but had the opposite intention: Believers simply dug in their heels.

Changing the Game

As it turns out, actual change isn’t impossible to achieve in this fight of facts vs. opinions. Instead, it’s down to the approach — and it all starts with empathy.

Let’s say you’re looking to convince someone that their opinion is wrong. Even if you’re armed with incontrovertible facts, you’ve got a tough road ahead. Since their opinion is part of a larger construct of beliefs, they’re naturally inclined to filter everything you say through this lens, meaning it loses power even if it’s the unvarnished truth.

Actually making a change requires an understanding of why and not what. Why do people hold the beliefs they do? A recent Forbes piece highlights this effect in an experiment that looked to convince people they should recycle less. Addressing common factors such as personal inconvenience and the inefficiency of many recycling programs made no difference — these facts fell away in the face of the moral obligation held by passionate recyclers. But when presented with information that showed potential negative impacts on wildlife and local environments posed by some recycling programs, attitudes started to change. By aligning arguments with underlying reasons for belief, it was possible to kick-start a cognitive shift.

The Opinion Imperative

Opinions aren’t just preferences. They’re often tied to fundamental belief systems driven by nature and nurture and reinforced by the existence of conflicting facts and figures. This isn’t to say they’re immutable — empathetic arguments can help drive cognitive change — but these personal perceptions remain a powerful component of the human experience.

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