PSYCHOLOGY of Belief
How the brain interprets the environment and why beliefs of others must be interpreted carefully.
-With an example using terrorism
There is a lot of information out in the world. Everything in the news, at home, around towns, outside, and in your head. It is too much! On top of that, different people have perspectives the same things that also has potential utility. For example, Eastern cultures and Western cultures have clear differences in brain activity when looking at certain objects. This also happens among different political ideologies and religions. They believe different things and all feel as if they have equal claims to truth. What is true in one environment to one group of people, may not be true in another environment. Beliefs provide guidance in making decisions about behavior, and the same behaviors can lead to different outcomes different cultural environments. The common thread among all of this are the set of shared human desires. Beliefs are then a rationalization of the behaviors that subjectively seem as reasonable ways to go about fulfilling those desires within a specific environment. It can be helpful to understand why people have different beliefs and how it makes them act differently. This allows for a more nuanced interpretation of the environment that informs more effectively dealing with personal or societal problems.
Firstly, being able to describe why other people do what they do or why things happen, does not mean you actually understand it. This is known as an illusion of depth. Research into how people reason makes the point that humans describe observations with both correlational and mechanistic knowledge. Correlational knowledge takes the form X ®Y. That is, if X occurs, then Y will follow. Mechanistic knowledge explains the mechanism, M, that underlies the relationship between X and Y. This takes the form X ®M®Y. M normally has its own correlations and underlying mechanisms that describe it. In reality, correlations are closer to the form X ® M1, M2, M3, M4, M4 ®Y. Research indicates that people rarely ever describe more than M1. They are ignorant of the existence most of the mechanisms involved. (Rozenblit and Keil 2002). The false assumption of knowing mechanistic knowledge about observed correlations is costly when it is in regards to sociopolitical issues. Proposed courses of action are informed by illusionary level of comprehension. The best course of action does not care about fitting within an ideology. It is whatever it is and it is typically much more complicated than believed. Not realizing that is like forcing a square peg into a round hole. The solution will seem effective in theory when the whole is conceived to be squared shaped. When you go to hammer it in, it does not work and you get frustrated. But because you are just certain you understand it, you keep hammering, break your hand and break the hammer. Alternatively, If you are aware that there might be additional factors you have not considered you seek input from people with different perspectives, make back up plans, and be ready to adjust.
When probing into causal relationships for the interpretation of a belief, it is necessary to consider context. Consider a belief in God. What does that mean in terms how person behaves? Such a belief is likely to play a causal role in behavior that also varies in it effects in accordance to context. “I believe in God” to an ancient Greek, would not mean the same thing to you. Its difference is reflected in the behaviors. These behaviors can then be further understood by looking into the culture of that time period, that person’s individual life, and so on. You then could be able to understand what they mean. You might think of it terms of energy and they might think a man in the clouds. These two beliefs would lead to different behaviors based upon the conception of what each God could do. All of that is based on a lot of assumptions in regard to the environment, True meaning is known when all the associated causal relationships are known in enough detail to consistently predict what happens across all contexts. Implications of any significant belief should never be taken from a literal statement alone when cultural context are different. That belief had somewhere else, might not have the same result.
Another false assumption results for not remembering a belief system is embodied and context dependent. When people of a different culture/environment say they believe something it is important to consider what it means within that context. It may not be possible to deduce the true meaning and implications of that belief without consideration of that context.
ISIS and jihadism is a good example of where cultural dynamics change the meaning of statements/beliefs. Within the Quran, there is language that can be interpreted as a justification to kill those who do not believe in Allah. It is very easy to think that this language being in their religion is causal to terrorism. That can lead to falsely conclude that the religion itself is a threat to the west. This is often done to irrationally support Atheistic beliefs. Anyone is free to do that, but this particular argument is good example of how choosing a level of analysis that supports beliefs while implying they are seeking the truth. While sitting in the living room of your upper-middle class household, it may appear that religion is a problem. It is a very naive statement that ignores the complexities at play.
From one irrationally chosen level of analysis, many more tend to emerge. Fundamentally, much of all political ideology today is built upon correlations that may exists, but do not support the argument in the way that is being implied. A “fact” is meaningless without defining the level of analysis and constraints what it is being applied because there are infinites facts available. Correlations is not causation. Simple reasoning is very alluring to the egos desire to have an inflated comprehension. As a person taking in arguments, you must be aware that such reasoning is done by selecting correlations arbitrarily to fit a belief. It is not truth.
To begin to make sense of terrorism, you need to look beyond the words and at the people. Terrorist are predominantly new members of the religion and most ignorant of its teachings. From that alone, exclusively putting blame on Islam without digging deeper is not logical. These people are in a mental state that makes ISIS seem like a better option that there current life. They were not raised up the religion. If it was Islam only, then the devote practitioners should be terrorists. People who study terrorism do not believe that naive perspective, but it is a fairly common explanation among the general public. Besides misinforming to support an agenda, arguing over the wrong causal factors preclude addressing the core of problem that could actually make progress. This is true of many issues. And like the Left and Right are both wrong because how they choose to interpret the problems. Right may think as Muslim countries should be treated as a threat. The Left may think “move on, nothing to see here. “They are both applying a personal belief systems to interpret in a course way that justifies other over simplifications.
This over generalizing creates a belief system that is like a house of cards. Getting to the truth at one thing not only weakens that stance, it simultaneously weakens others. What this leads to is a defense against learning the truth. The truth is threat irrational belief systems of polarized political parties. With the growing interconnectedness of world and increasing complexity, more nuanced understanding of the causal relationships become more necessary. Thus, the truth becomes increasingly at odds with such belief systems. Problems intensify while ideologies try to avoid scrutiny. If those in power of internet secretly and publicly continue to control the level causal analysis, you can be sure it will be used to make it seem that what they want to believe to be true and hide that which brings nuance that questions it. It does not matter who thinks what is correct. It manipulates in way that fools people brains by using the way the brain interprets information against them.
Going beyond a myopic focus on the words in the Quran might lead to a belief that rampant poverty and lack of opportunity to improve socioeconomic status is making terrorism alluring to young men. That is a reasonable sounding causal mechanism that many ascribe. But it is not correct still. How would you to even consider alternatives? Well, it is not self-evident as to why one would turn to terrorism when they did not have opportunities. Would you? Probably not. With such an important, you would want to take insight and look further into other possible causal mechanisms. Upon consideration, lack social mobility is established in many other eastern cultures who do not have such terrorism issues. Would that not be true they practiced Islam. It is hard to say, but you can look up statistics on individuals who. Turns out, neither poverty, GDP of the country, or educational attainment to increase likelihood of joining a terrorist organization. Terrorists are often educated and from relatively well-off families. Now even that more nuanced view is also wrong. That us okay. You are wrong and just keep learning more.
The actual best predictor of terrorism is the level of civil liberties. Islam itself is not even correlated. Freedom of speech, expression, religion, and press. Those are the environmental conditions that prevent terrorism. Guess what those promote? Truth and reason. That should be warning to all countries. The government cannot focus on the actual problems because that would put their belief systems at risk.
When expression is arbitrarily controlled, it becomes subject to the biases of the controlling group. This prevents idea exchanges needed for truth. Leaders cannot control flow of information and expect people to apply truth to their lives. Beliefs will ALWAYS become wrong. Either they don’t apply to a different context or a different era. It is critical that belief are allowed to change. Freedom of information is what makes them malleable. Stagnant beliefs lead internal conflict of the individual and external between people. When that happens, you cannot find the meaning that comes from being your true self. That causes suffering. It causes obstacles to seem more unbearable and a complaining/blaiming others for personal failures. People need meaning and purpose. Research indicates that it is fighting for a cause is makes terrorism alluring. As for the promises of sex, it is not being able to handle the normal rejection that is part of finding a partner. The feeling helpless generalizes to all areas of life when their no life meaning. These young men are trying to find meaning in life while also having the ability to freely express themselves independently restricted. In the West, speaking out against societal issues is a source of meaning to many. It is argued here that that speaking is often misinformed when it is not accompanied by solution and truth seeking mindset, but is meaning nonetheless. It is better than violence.
It is important to have a life purpose and this life purpose requires personal freedoms. There cannot be restrictions on the ability to freely seek the truth. There cannot be any censorship on information as a rule for an optimal society. Among other things, seeking the truth allows for one to follow their true interests and freely express. While there are less constraints on individual expression in Western culture, finding meaning is still a problem. There has not been much research into this, but opioid epidemic among young men can be explained as similarly to terrorism. In the west, opioid use is correlated to depression and aimless life direction. This is also the same as absence of producing goals and purpose. Opioids provide relief from the psychological suffering to acknowledging ones one inability to thrive. It is also worth asking, why are these things primarily a problem with young men? This is because having children forces them to start taking life more serious earlier and have children. Children are highly meaningful and can satisfy much desires for personal life significance. This in turn increases drive and motivation to overcome challenges with less time brood failures. Being able to create life and raise children provides much meaning.
In sum, the explanation of behaviors is not captured by the surface level words used by the individuals to describe them. The extreme behaviors we notice are an outlet for a common set of human desires. The particular manifestation s are particular to the environment. Joining a terrorist organization or abusing opiates are related. A sense of a higher purpose is critical to what keeps us going through the ups and downs of life. It is a fundamental human desire because it serves an evolutionary role in providing motivation to thrive. Like sexual attractions helps reproduce, a desire for meaning is what causes one to overcome challenges despite difficulties. It helps one go above and beyond what is normal possible. In that way, meaning can also be said to support human reproductive success and survival. It is much more than an idea that seems to correlated with psychological health. It is a hardwired evolutionary mechanisms that makes you suffer if you are not striving for greater and great achievements. There is resistance to conform that comes from the ego, but meaning makes do something that can move humanity forward. There is something special about following a passion or curiosity that seems very special in that it provides a sense of meaning. It is unique to an individual and allows them to go beyond when doubt and fear would normally make one stop. It simultaneously makes one less susceptible to believing the incorrect logic of misleading causal relationships. It is as if following your true self lets you see the truth. Understanding how the brain interprets the world can help do something meaningful because that requires finding deeper truths that do not necessarily conform to the course causal interpretations of shared group beliefs.
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