Individuals tend to view themselves as less capable than other people of voluntarily changing their beliefs, according to new research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
“Psychologist and philosophers have long thought that our beliefs are not under our direct control — that we can influence what we believe to some extent, but we cannot pick and choose what we believe,” said study author Corey Cusimano, a postdoctoral research associate at Princeton University.
“These scholars usually made these claims based on introspection, by looking inward and reporting how they felt when they tried to change their beliefs. Some recent work I and others had recently done suggested that ordinary people don’t think of beliefs this way — they tended to assume that beliefs are controllable. If people have the same intuitions about belief that philosophers do when they introspect, then we thought maybe they would think about their own and others’ beliefs differently.”
Cusimano and his colleagues conducted seven studies, with more than 3,500 participants in total, to examine how much control people believe they have over their own beliefs and how much control people believe others have over their beliefs.
The researchers consistently found that people tended to view others as have more control over their beliefs than they themselves did. For example, people believed that others were more capable of changing their belief in whether God exists or whether social media has had a negative overall impact on dating than they were.
This discrepancy was true even when the participants considered someone who held the exact same belief that they did and when they considered close others, such as a best friend or romantic partner. “It arose not only for beliefs supplied by us as the experimenters but also for beliefs that subjects themselves supplied,” the researchers said.
“We have this idea of beliefs being free choices, but this idea conflicts with what it feels like to hold a belief. Try to remember that other people probably feel about their beliefs just like you do about yours, namely, that they cannot simply change what they believe,” Cusimano told PsyPost.
The researchers also found one potential explanation for the self-other discrepancy. When judging their control over their own beliefs, the participants were more likely to cite evidence or arguments in support of the belief in question. When judging other people, on the other hand, the participants were more likely to cite generic conceptions about belief control, such as “Anyone can choose to believe anything.”
But the amount of control that people actually have when it comes to choosing what to believe is still unclear.
“One major question is whether or not our feelings of low control are accurate. That is, is it really true that we cannot ‘pick and choose’ what we believe? On balance, I think that other data in psychology suggest that our feelings of low control are closer to the truth. But as a field I do not think we have fully nailed this down,” Cusimano said.
The study, “People Judge Others to Have More Voluntary Control Over Beliefs Than They Themselves Do“, was authored by Corey Cusimano and Geoffrey P. Goodwin.