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The Relationship Between Emotions and Beliefs

Dr. Thomas Swan has a PhD in psychology from the University of Otago. His work explores theories of emotion, memory, and belief.

Beliefs often describe a commitment made in the face of uncertainty.

Beliefs often describe a commitment made in the face of uncertainty.

What are Beliefs?

A belief is an internally held or publicly espoused commitment to a premise that may be knowable or completely unsupported by evidence. Importantly, this gamut of uncertainty is what distinguishes beliefs from knowledge. For example, most of us know and believe that the sky is blue, but if you believe it will rain tomorrow, you do not necessarily know it will rain. Thus, beliefs are often formed when someone ventures beyond the scope of their knowledge, and takes a risk by committing to a premise that may not be entirely supported.

Given the inherent risk, beliefs that are publicly stated often have non-trivial content, i.e. they concern topics that are important for the well-being or social status of the speaker. As a result, beliefs may be imbued with an emotional investment, such that if the belief is proven wrong, there will be an emotional cost.

Many psychologists view belief as an unscientific term that deserves to be phased out. Contradictory and ambiguous definitions may be to blame for this attitude. However, knowledge is even less well defined. For example, a skeptic would claim that we can never know we know anything. If this is the case, then knowledge is merely a well-supported belief that we falsely ascribe the comforting notion of certainty to.

The Purpose of Beliefs

Beliefs may function to advertise your unique characteristics as a mate. The beliefs you hold will distinguish you from other potential partners. This allows like-minded members of the opposite sex to pick you from the crowd, which helps to guarantee a stable relationship in which a child can be brought up successfully. Natural selection should favor extensive belief formation, as this will improve the process of mate selection, and the quality of the child-rearing environment.

How Are Beliefs Learned?

Many of the beliefs we hold have been borrowed from individuals who demonstrate authority or prestige. This includes parents, celebrities, historical figures, politicians, and community leaders. For example, children will overwhelmingly adopt the religious beliefs of their parents. Another natural means of belief adoption is our propensity to conform with the majority.

Ignoring these sources of belief can negatively affect well-being. For example, one could be disowned by their parents, ostracized by society, or destined for failure as a result of choosing maladaptive beliefs. Natural selection has filtered those who are disposed to this behavior from the gene pool, leaving the human race with a disposition for conformity and prestige-based mimicry. An added benefit is the ease with which these types of beliefs are formed. If we assume that the popularity or success of a belief makes it reliable, our mental resources are spared the difficulty of testing it.

Nevertheless, niche beliefs can be attractive if the benefits outweigh the costs. Indeed, if beliefs demonstrate one's unique characteristics as a mate, then pandering to the majority isn't always an effective strategy. However, it's likely that most niche beliefs will be adopted from models of authority or prestige for the aforementioned reasons.

When forming beliefs, we all like to think we're perfectly scientific.

When forming beliefs, we all like to think we're perfectly scientific.

How Are Beliefs Formed?

Sometimes a belief will be formed using one's own cognitive faculties, with little or no influence from other people.

Perhaps the rarest mode of belief formation is that which relies on empirical observation and universal systems of logic to make `rational' deductions about one's environment. Not surprisingly, most people claim to exclusively use this method. Indeed, people wish to be seen as impartial because it gives their opinion extra weight. Even if someone has made a rational deduction, accusing them of being irrational will provoke an emotional defense. Thus, it may be impossible to form a belief without the influence of emotion, because even rational beliefs are a source of pride.

A more common form of belief formation is motivated reasoning (PDF). This is often used to reinforce prior beliefs or knowledge that one has an emotional stake in. For example, if a patriot extracts pride from the belief that her country is great, she will be more inclined to believe stories that show her country in a good light. In the same way, religious people are inclined to believe Intelligent Design because it supports prior beliefs that they are emotionally invested in. The purpose is to fool oneself rather than others. Indeed, if a new belief agrees with preexisting beliefs, it appears to be rational, and the motivation for forming it can be ignored.

As well as reinforcing positive emotions, motivated reasoning can be used to cope with negative emotions. For example, sitting in a hospital bed might intensify one's fear of death. This should create a motivation to believe in an afterlife, prompting a biased search for information that can be used to support the premise. Whether the individual reads holy books and theological articles, or listens to priests and religious groups; the goal is to convince themselves that, if they believed in an afterlife, their belief would be rational. If these mental gymnastics can be performed, the new belief serves to alleviate the negative emotion that triggered the process of motivated reasoning.

Emotions such as anxiety may be a significant factor in belief formation.

Emotions such as anxiety may be a significant factor in belief formation.

Intuitive and Reflective Beliefs

Cognitive scientists usually separate beliefs into intuitive and reflective states. For example, a man observing a lady smile at her companion’s behavior may form the reflective belief that replicating this behavior would be useful during a romantic encounter. However, this relies on the intuitive belief that a smile is an expression of happiness. Intuitive beliefs are automatically treated as data. They include folk beliefs such as `solid objects cannot occupy the same space' and `other people have beliefs and desires that are separate from my own'.

Ineraction Between Emotions and Beliefs

Our beliefs influence how we perceive, interpret, and construct the world. As a result, beliefs are central to the production and transformation of emotional states. According to cognitive appraisal theory, emotions are elicited when we evaluate stimuli in our environment. This evaluation includes questions such as "does this stimulus help or inhibit my goals?" and "can i cope with it?". Negative answers should produce an unpleasant emotion, but if we are to answer these questions, beliefs are required about the nature of the stimulus. For example, feeling anxious during a romantic encounter requires beliefs about how one is expected to behave, and whether one’s behavior matches that ideal. If these beliefs are wrong, one's emotional state may be unduly affected.

As we have seen, emotions also affect the beliefs we form, suggesting a recurrent interplay between the two cognitions. In fact, some emotions may be especially able to facilitate the formation of new beliefs. For example, anxiety is appraised whenever a non-trivial, uncertain threat to well-being is detected. This describes many of the conditions under which new beliefs form. As such, there should be no greater emotional influence on beliefs than anxiety.

Wishful Thinking?

David Hume described beliefs as perfectly inert states that cannot produce or prevent action. Conversely, pragmatist philosophers have described beliefs as that upon which we are prepared to act. If this is the case, what compels us to act on our beliefs? The deductions made thus far would suggest that if beliefs bias the direction of our behavior, emotions provide the impetus for it.

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What we end up believing is invariably what we most want to believe. Though some desirable premises are plausible, many are merely a prelude to wishful thinking. Indeed, if you wish to measure someone's lack of delusion, just ask them how many unwelcome beliefs they have.

© 2013 Thomas Swan


f_hruz from Toronto, Ontario, Canada on August 13, 2015:

Thanks Bobby ... I often thought, emotions should primarily serve us as an indicator of being alive, if not used for more intellectual reflection and examination to advance our minds past the dominant impact emotions can have upon our limited grasp of reality.

Robert Morgan on August 13, 2015:

F Hruz, your insights ring true to me. I'm glad that I am following Thomas's posts. Blessings, Bobby

f_hruz from Toronto, Ontario, Canada on August 12, 2015:

Selecting between gaining more insight into how to better cope with reality or to be happy living in an irrational world full of religious, nationalistic and politically motivated symbolism is exactly the kind of value judgment any truly independent thinking being has to make if they ever want to discover the process of personal intellectual development.

An understanding of how things are, has to ultimately create the desire for positive change if our insights into the state of reality have any value.

Robert Morgan on August 12, 2015:

Hi Thomas, Thank you for your kind and comprehensive answer to my poorly worded comment. You brilliantly deciphered my comment and quickly got to the heart of the subject. I agree with you on both accounts, though I still find myself somewhere in the middle. Blessings, Bobby

Thomas Swan (author) from New Zealand on August 12, 2015:

Thank you for commenting the rawspirit. I think the worst type of belief occurs when someone lets their emotions and unconscious mind dictate their acceptance of the "past teachings" I think you're describing. So your independent path avoids that. The choice is then to decide whether to let emotions determine one's beliefs. As described in the hub, anxiety may be the chief culprit here. This emotion comes about when we feel uncertain and not in control of our environment. We all feel this, and how we cope with the emotion can take us down divergent paths. We can either believe in a level of order to the universe that isn't supported by a reasonable amount of evidence, or we can accept uncertainty as inevitable and try to reduce it as best we can by seeking knowledge. In my opinion, the first path is more likely to make a person happy; the second path is more likely to make one knowledgeable.

Robert Morgan on August 11, 2015:

Great hub, but I think its way over my head. I'm still scratching it, lol. As of late, I am compelled to believe most of my beliefs come from deep within my subconscious. Very few of them are grounded in the past teachings, actions or deductions that once seemed to make up the majority of my belief processes. So, it appears that I of course invariably believe what I most want to believe, and I think that's why I am pretty happy with myself and the world around me. Blessings, and I'm voting this up, and I will be back to reread it again :)

if you wish to measure someone's lack of delusion, just ask them how many unwelcome beliefs they have.

H.B. Fortinberry from Connecticut on October 14, 2013:

Well, if you consider our daily activities as us performing that which will place us in a position that will allow us to gain or avoid any given result that as been preconceived as a potential, the story line theory may begin to hold more weight. This is the root of Alfred Adler's understanding of the concept of "fictions": We proceed through life acting "As if" something will occur. But because the "something" may or may not really happen, it all remains in the state of being a fiction, or something not yet validated as fact.

Thomas Swan (author) from New Zealand on October 14, 2013:

hfortinberry, that sounds like quite a good analogy. Appraisal theory is a way for cognitions to affect emotions, while emotion/mood attribution, sentiments, and motivated reasoning are a way for emotions to affect beliefs/cognitions. You're probably aware of all the cognitive biases that result from emotions too. There seems to be a detailed interplay between the two, such that neglecting one (usually emotions) can leave cognitive psychology hopelessly inadequate.

I'm not really a proponent of the story line theory of beliefs, though I think it has some relevance to beliefs that qualify as "values", which seem to have a greater degree of emotional input. I'm glad you picked up on the lack of distinction between knowledge and belief. The difficulty in understanding if knowledge even exists (by common definitions) should favor getting rid of that concept, rather than belief.

Thomas Swan (author) from New Zealand on October 14, 2013:

f_hruz, I agree that adopting beliefs from authority figures or the majority may be a retarding factor in today's world, but we evolved that disposition for a reason. It's a shortcut to reliable and useful beliefs (most of the time) that save the individual from having to use mental resources. Even in today's world, politicians and celebrities work hard not to upset anybody... and though it's deplorable, those are the people who tend to survive in their line of work.

I think more could be gained if we were all bold, unique, and independent, but people still largely think in terms of what is best for themselves rather than for the species.

Thomas Swan (author) from New Zealand on October 14, 2013:

Thank you sparkster, buddhaanalysis, f_hruz, and hfortinberry for the kind and interesting comments.

f_hruz from Toronto, Ontario, Canada on October 13, 2013:

It makes it all that much more important to expose the mind polluters as evil manipulators in our consumption driven society who are retarding any real intellectual development on a broader scale ...

The frailty of the human mind should not be permitted to be continuously exploited by a for-profit capitalist mind set and institutionally brainwashed to conform to such a low level of social and political awareness as to become impotent and dysfunctional in a radically self-correcting process of social and political change ... a movement which is hard to find in this debilitated social culture and political environment in the US of today.

buddhaanalysis on October 13, 2013:

You have very resolved thoughts, i likes it and lot to learn from you.

H.B. Fortinberry from Connecticut on October 12, 2013:

In the book, "Logics of the Kingdom", which will be published in the near future, I describe the cognitive and emotional domains as structured like the distinct fields in the electromagnetic force: The electric field and the magnetic field are perpendicular to one another, with a change in one effecting a change in the other. If our thoughts change in response to environmental stimuli, the magnetic response of repulsion or attraction occurs as a result; and if our emotional attraction or repulsion occurs in response to a person, place, or thing, the electric field, which governs our thoughts, is known to change as well.

In terms of beliefs, there is undeniable power in belief; all we need to do is gather the countless evidences of the placebo effect as having had a substantial effect on any given experiment. Beliefs also are tied to the story lines that people ascribe to their own lives, as well as to the lives of others. While these beliefs may not be verifiably "true", when you think about discoveries in general and the knowledge gained and dismissed because of "new and improved" discoveries, one may begin to see that the line between "knowledge" and "belief" is actually quite thin.

f_hruz from Toronto, Ontario, Canada on October 12, 2013:

Great job well done! You are heading in the right direction by questioning the imposed value of conformity and traditional authority as a retarding factor in the evolution of our mind set.

Human conditioning in a perverse, consumption driven environment introduces highly irrational values and virtually eliminates, or at least, greatly reduces the sense of importance for greater objectivity and intellectual independence as an immensely desirable quality in ones perception of a more dynamic and progressive hierarchy of values in a socially productive, modern society.

Marc Hubs from United Kingdom on October 12, 2013:

Great hub and very interesting read. Values and beliefs are everything.

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