How do we come to believe such different things?

I haven’t written for a long time, partly because I haven’t wanted to take up space and partly because I haven’t given myself the time. I recently left my job to focus full-time on the last year of my master’s in psychology and neuroscience of mental health. It’s a subject I love but haven’t been able to fully devote myself to until now. It’s been a great move for my own mental health, but has come during a time of great uncertainty thanks to coronavirus. This piece is not strictly mental health-related but it’s about how we think and relate to each other, and has been on my mind for months.

It’s not just coronavirus causing trauma for people right now. There are myriad issues burning for many people across the world beyond the virus – the continuing fight for black lives following the murder George Floyd, antisemitism and the exclusion of Jews from the anti-racism agenda, rampant transphobia, Trump still being President of the United States, Hong Kong struggling to retain its democracy, the systematic abuse against Uighurs in China, the climate emergency, and (depressingly) so much more.

Whilst I can’t and won’t compare or rank these issues, common to all of them is the divide they create. Unless (rarely, I find) actively abstaining from having an opinion, people tend to have strong views one way or the other. Issues like these are inherently complex, and not necessarily binary topics. Some people believe in the existence of systematic racism (myself included for the avoidance of doubt), others do not. Among those who do, there is disagreement about what should be done to address it. The same kind of disagreement goes for all of the other issues I mention. Generally, support for a cause is met with resistance against it. Protesters are met with counter-protesters. Violence is erupting all over the place and in some cases people are dying for what they believe in. I keep asking myself why this happens, especially on matters of fact. Take the slightly less inflammatory flat earth issue, for example. How can it be that despite a huge amount of evidence that the earth is a sphere, some people still firmly believe it to be flat?

One of the most challenging but interesting topics I have done in my masters so far was learning about this polarisation of opinion and how we come to believe the things that we do, particularly on contentious topics. We weren’t born with the beliefs we hold, at some point all of us start from a point of not having a particular belief or opinion on something. Can you remember a time you didn’t have an opinion on feminism? Racism? Climate change? The oppression of the Uighurs? For many people, it’s a privilege to not have thought about huge topics like these before. Some are forced to learn about these issues very early in life by virtue of the hand life dealt to them. Nevertheless, we do all start from the same place, even if not at the same time.

Aronson and Tavris (2007)1 introduced a model called the Pyramid Model, which can be applied to any divisive topic but I’ll use systemic racism in the US as an example. The Pyramid Model explains how two people can start from a place of no opinion or belief and end up being polarised from each other through a process of repeated self-justifying. For example, two white, American adults with similar backgrounds start at the same point, where they have never thought about systemic racism or whether it exists. Both witness the same news over time: the murder of Trayvon Martin in 2013 by a neighbourhood watch co-ordinator, and the murder of Michael Brown by police in 2014. After Michael’s death, both become challenged for the first time (let’s assume) to decide what they believe: does systematic racism exist in the United States? One decides it does and moves down one side of the pyramid, the other decides that it doesn’t and moves down the other side. According to the pyramid model, both of them start to process new information in a way that justifies and reinforces their initial choice, making them further convinced of it. One sees George Floyd’s death as further evidence of systemic racism and the global reaction as confirmation of the need for change, whilst the other somehow sees his death and the ensuing chaos as proof that people of colour are to be feared and need to be controlled by police. These moments continue to repeat through a person’s life, further perpetuating the divide. It’s an over-simplified example and the reality is far more complex, but it does explain how people starting in the same place end up so far away from each other.

A great diagram of the Pyramid Model done by someone else, initially created by Aronson & Tavris (2007)

This pyramid model makes the initial early decision one way or another immensely important as subsequent information naturally serves to fit into the opinion instead of challenging or contextualising it. When does it happen? Multiple U.S. studies have shown racial bias develops in childhood. Children aged six were found to associate white people with more positive traits and self-segregate accordingly2, and 92% of black children under ten in a survey reported suffering racial discrimination at school3. This is what I meant by some people being forced to learn about these issues early in life. An individual’s journey down the pyramid can start very early, usually by learning behaviour and beliefs from the adults around them. It’s here, at the start, where the greatest impact can be had.

How does the process of self-justifying actually work? When someone believes something, there is an element of feeling certainty and completeness without margin for error. When anything happens that doesn’t fit with a belief we hold, we get cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance feels very confusing and uncomfortable, everyone will have experienced it at some point, often without consciously noticing. Our brains like to neatly categorise things, and when something doesn’t fit with our categorisation, it’s a shock to the system. The instinct is to immediately find a way to negate that feeling, often at the expense of rational thought. When two parties are polarised on an issue, they both think the other irrational, ignorant, feckless and malevolent. The deeper a belief becomes, the stronger these feelings grow and the more noxious the divide becomes.

A study by Dulin-Keita and colleagues in 20124 found that racism is so institutionally embedded in the US that it has become invisible or less obvious to most white people, despite statistics consistently indicating that ethnic minority groups in the US are more likely to live in poverty, and have poorer health outcomes and inferior access to public resources like good education or healthcare. If a person who doesn’t believe systemic racism exists hears this, it probably won’t change their mind. They might argue that the statistics must be invalid, that the concept of racism is fake news (we see Trump play this card all the time), or more abhorrently that the statistics somehow prove black people are lazy and inferior and should be treated as such. The natural, easy reaction is to sustain and reinforce existing beliefs. Thinking that our beliefs might be wrong is not natural for most people. A precious few will feel cognitive dissonance and think they need to reassess their beliefs and then make adjustments accordingly. Without making an effort to look critically at the evidence presented to us, or consider the thought that our initial thinking might have been flawed, we never get away from the first conclusion we jumped to.

Once you add in the fact that a lot of these issues also include a degree of subjectivity (like lived experience) as opposed to purely stone cold facts, and you can see how chaos ensues. If sane and well people can believe the earth is flat, it’s not beyond reason that people can be racist, antisemitic, islamophobic, transphobic and deny climate change too. Facts and rationality get lost in a sea of subjectivity and confusion, and empathy is nowhere to be seen.

It doesn’t have to be all doom and gloom, though. I’ve talked about how we come to be so divided, but we aren’t powerless to change it. There’s a lot that we can do. Proactively educating ourselves and reading critically about such issues helps. Being able to sense that we have gone further than we’d like down a particular rabbit hole and steering ourselves in a different direction is possible. Learning how to be a good ally and helping marginalised groups with some of the legwork is helpful too. We can’t expect these groups to do all of the heavy lifting alone. And basic psychology tells us that people are more trusting of those who they identify with or see themselves in; allies to any of these causes can have a huge impact by amplifying marginalised voices among non-marginalised communities.

I’m all too conscious that by writing about the interesting phenomenon of how beliefs come to exist, I risk opening up a can of worms in which intolerant ideologies are excused or anti-racist movements (for example) are given less legitimacy for being ‘silly radical beliefs that got out of hand’. People are still accountable for the beliefs that they hold and the way they choose to act on them. And I guess the point is that we should all recognise the processes at play in our minds whenever we find ourselves believing something, whatever that may be. More connects us in discord than at first glance; when we believe in something strongly, the same parts of our brain are activated as someone who believes the opposite. We are all human. The same forces are at play, and none of us are immune to them.

Finally, I couldn’t have written this without also including educational resources on some of the issues mentioned. They have all helped me better understand that I am not powerless to make a positive difference.

Useful resources


1 – Aronson, E. & Tavris, C. (2007). Mistakes were made (but not by me): why we justify foolish beliefs, bad decisions and hurtful acts. New York: Harcourt.

2 – Connolly, P. (2002). Racism, gender identities and young children: Social relations in a multi-ethnic, inner city primary school. Routledge.

3 – Brody, G. H., Chen, Y. F., Murry, V. M., Ge, X., Simons, R. L., Gibbons, F. X., Gerrard, M., & Cutrona, C. E. (2006). Perceived discrimination and the adjustment of African American youths: a five-year longitudinal analysis with contextual moderation effects. Child development77(5), 1170–1189.

4 – Dulin-Keita, A., Hannon, L., Fernandez, J. R., & Cockerham, W. C. (2011). The Defining Moment: Children’s Conceptualization of Race and Experiences with Racial Discrimination. Ethnic and racial studies34(4), 662–682.

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