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What do you mean when you say "I believe"?

two hands in belief

We often feel that our beliefs define who we are — they certainly play a large role in determining our values, goals and behaviors. And we tend to be protective of ideas once we've told others that we "believe" them. The danger of saying "I believe" is that it creates an attachment to an idea, which makes it less likely that we'll back down from that idea even if evidence suggests it's wrong. But what if our beliefs aren't what we think they are — what if many of them are trivial, knee-jerk, or held without justification? And what if we don't even know what we mean when we say we "believe"?

To help you better understand what you and others might mean when you say "I believe", we've created the following taxonomy: a list of seven very different meanings that "belief" can take. Next time you find yourself thinking about one of your beliefs, consider which of these categories the idea you're talking about really falls into, and whether you really want to say "I believe" about it at all. You may find that the idea you're considering doesn't hew as closely to your innermost self as you thought.

1. Unquestioned belief

A life-long perspective regarding the nature of the world and/or the way society should be arranged, learned as a child — often from parents — and treated as an axiomatic intellectual feature throughout adulthood. Our "beliefs" about morality are often of this sort, whether they be secular or religious in nature. (Examples: "X is obviously the best political system." or "It is self-evident that Y must be the one true religion and all other religions false.")

2. Reactive belief

A snap judgment quickly made about a complex subject without the benefit of extensive review in situations where you don't have enough experience for your intuition to be well-honed. For instance, a "first impression" of a new acquaintance's personality. (Example: "I don't know what it is, but the moment I met her, I could tell she's sneaky.")

3. Affective belief

A form of wishful thinking about a complicated subject that is specifically averse to factual refutation, held for emotional benefits rather than for veracity. Scams and junk science often play on tendencies towards this type of idea, which are likely to crop up around complex subjects where fear is involved. (Example: "If I take this special vitamin C supplement every day, I won't ever have to worry about cancer!")

4. Identitarian belief

Ideas held in order to identify one as a member of a group, rather than on their own merits (which may or may not be scant). This type of belief is especially common to crop up during periods of political division, and they often disparage non-members of the group. The beliefs of groups considered antagonistic to your group are often scorned. (Example: "Conservatives are basically all idiots." or "Liberals are ignorant of how the world really works.")

5. Predictive belief:

An uncertain probabilistic opinion regarding the eventual revelation of a currently-unknown factual matter, generated by considering your intuition. One common example: opinions about who will win a sporting event. ("I believe that the Atlanta Falcons will win the Super Bowl!")

6. Experiential belief

Ideas that you've come to believe based on large amounts of firsthand experience. For instance, if you've been a tax accountant for years, you probably have well-justified beliefs about the right way to handle reimbursed business expenses on your tax forms. (Example: "I've seen dozens of cars have this problem before, so I know exactly what's wrong with this one.")

7. Analytical belief

A carefully considered position arrived at by evaluating all of the extant perspectives and significant data that are relevant to an issue. (Example: "Having thoroughly reviewed the evidence and the arguments both for and against, I've finally come to the conclusion that cold fusion is a practical impossibility during our lifetimes.")

As you'll notice above, only three of these forms of beliefs have much to do with the truth. The others are based on what you've been told since before you could form your own beliefs, what your immediate gut reaction tells you (when you don't have enough experience for your gut reactions to be trustworthy), what you find it pleasing to believe, or what group you identify as being a part of. If we want an accurate understanding of the way the world really is, we have to be cautious about those beliefs that we hold for reasons other than because of their relationship to the truth.

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