‘Having beliefs’ is closer to arm-wrestling than to logical deduction or science

Some scattered thoughts about applying all the stuff in my blogs about language use to ‘beliefs’:

“Language use is a socially transitive verb”

“Language use is a non-muscular social skill”

What are ‘beliefs’?

‘Beliefs’ are something we say or think, not something we ‘have’. Unless you want to talk about “I have chopsticking” or “I have soccering” in the way we flippantly say, “I have beliefs”.

‘Beliefs’ are a form or a skill of language use. You get out of bed every morning but do you have a belief that ‘I get out of bed every morning’?  No, you would not say that unless a social situation demanded it.  The situations for saying ‘beliefs’ are social and verbal; you do not ‘have a belief’ for every single thing you do, only when these are required socially.

What are ‘beliefs’ used for?

Therefore, beliefs are ‘used’ to manage our social relationships and their outcomes.  This is why they are more like arm-wrestling than careful, logical deductions based on our experiences.  ‘Having strong beliefs’, for example, is usually part of either bullying or building a tall border wall around your social relationships.

Our beliefs are a part of our social relationship management strategies, and so we have to juggle these between family, friends and strangers.  In the modern world this can be difficult because we mix with so many different and unrelated people.  But at least in the modern world, with so many strangers in our lives, any ‘beliefs’ we use socially in some of our relationships we can keep secret fairly easily from our other relationships if necessary.  Like all our behaviours, the modern world makes it easy to compartmentalize our lives and this includes compartmentalizing our ‘beliefs’.

Stating beliefs is a specialized way of doing things to people with language use.  We can walk or drive and go to the gym without beliefs. But I might need ‘my beliefs’ about gym to convince my friends to go to gym, or to stop them picking on me because I fail to go to gym.  Both verbal negotiation for social relationship outcomes.

Some ‘beliefs’ we call ‘core’. These are ones we say in almost all contexts and social relationships, whatever the consequences.  If you do that it tells me a lot about your life ecology and your social relationships, not about an ‘inner strength of conviction’.

It might be thought that the non-social world and our experiences help to build our beliefs, but what we do and experience can be done without beliefs (like getting out of bed or going to the gym).  Talking ‘beliefs’ is only with people; we do not have to talk about the bed to get out of it.  As I have said in these blogs before, talking about cats is not shaped by cats but by people.  Talking about cats does nothing to cats which is consequential for us.  All that is consequential is what people do when we talk about cats.  This now includes our ‘beliefs’ about cats.

It might also be thought that scientific deductions from observations are what really establishes or changes our ‘beliefs’, but consider what effects supposedly ‘foolproof scientific evidence’ has on your social relationships. If you doubt the evidence for any reason, that will also damage your relationship with the person presenting you that evidence.  So, giving evidence is also a social event, and so when we might ‘change our beliefs because of evidence’ this is still social relationship negotiation and management.  Going against evidence and not believing has social costs just as much as going along with it does with your still disbelieving friends.

Most important, therefore, for therapy and behaviour change, is that we do not do things because of our beliefs; we do things because of the social relationship exchanges that have also led to our having to say beliefs in the first place.  Think of when someone questions you about something you have always done anyway:

  • “Do you put your feet on the ground before you get up out of bed?”
  • “Yes, of course I do.”
  • “So, you must believe in putting your feet on the ground before you get up out of bed?”
  • “Well, I guess so, sort of…not really…”

Do you invent what you say to manage the conversation and social outcomes, or are you ‘retrieving’ your true beliefs which have apparently ‘propelled’ that behaviour every morning of your life without you ever realizing it?

Changing beliefs: Therapy and other social influences

All this might sound trivial or academic but it is important in a number of applications.

  • Therapy is usually about talking, so our beliefs and other uses of language are being negotiated with a stranger who is being paid to talk with us but who we will not see again after therapy ceases.  This modern therapy context constrains how we talk with each other, what influences we can have on each other, and what changes can be made in our lives and for how long.  As we know from Beck and Ellis and almost all other therapists, negotiating or changing belief statements is a big part of therapy: like moving from “I am an awful person” to “I am really happy with who I am now”.  Some life situations and audiences have shaped up “I am an awful person” (it is not a self-deduction), so how do we get to “I am really happy with who I am now”?  Therapy is not about giving logical deductions or evidence for the goodness of your person, but about re-shaping what your audiences have shaped and hoping it sticks afterwards. [Even with Ellis, he might appear to be changing beliefs with logical arguments but there is a lot of social relationship negotiating happening which even borders on bullying.]
  • Similarly, if you are brainwashed, persuaded or ‘radicalized’ from one set of core beliefs to another, this is also not about logical or scientific deduction (although they can be added in), but about changing the person’s audiences and social relationships.  This has long been known and most radical changes (for ‘good’ or bad) will include severing ties with your old social relationships.  A crucial part of cults.
  • I have been reading a lot of social anthropology and sociology again, and am amazed how they both get caught out by uncritically using ‘beliefs’, ‘attitudes’ and a number of other words referring to language use as if they existed as things rather than as events.  The typical slip is to treat religious or ritual behaviours as arising from having religious beliefs: “They practice this ritual because of their religious beliefs.”  But the beliefs do not ‘cause’ the behaviours.  Both their ritual behaviours and the stated beliefs arise from the social negotiations of living in such communities.
  • Finally, what seem contradictions between stated beliefs and our other behaviours or our other beliefs make more sense in this way.  That is because there is no real contradiction, just different ways of saying things.  If our use of language which we call beliefs is shaped in one way by an audience and yet the physical world or different people in our life shape us to do the opposite, this just is.  There is no logical contradiction, just different audiences with different outcomes.  This might produce stress, of course, from having a seeming conflict between your relationships, but the stress is not from a contradiction or ‘cognitive dissonance’.

So, can you see better now how ‘having beliefs’ is closer to arm-wrestling than to logical deduction or science?  When we state ‘beliefs’ we are doing things to negotiate our social relationships and their outcomes.  This is what arm-wrestling is doing but in a usually riskier way.

So start noticing when you or your friends state your ‘beliefs’. What are the circumstances which brought this on? What were the consequences?  Did they believe you (or acquiesce) more because you said it was an ‘important belief’ of yours (a weak form of bullying)?  Did you ask a question first?  Were they trying to stop you questioning them afterwards?

Fieldwork awaits…



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