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08 March, 2009

Beliefs: Evolution of Thought

Q: Tell me an example of a belief, idea, or position that you hold, which has changed at some point during your life. What was going on in your life at that time?

In the quest to understand how beliefs are formed, I thought it would be insightful to ask how people's beliefs altered over time. There are probably many beliefs that we hold that are almost immutable. These are likely to be highly dependent on things such as culture and religion. And they may also be driven by early experiences in life, that imprint on us beliefs that we cannot shake; either about the world or ourselves. I'm sure you can imagine plenty of examples.

So when do beliefs change? And why? Does it require trauma? Does it require change of location? Does it depend on interactions with new people who shape our minds? Universities? A book that we read? Or does Father Time himself have the capacity to shape us, whereby our views shift due to an integration of the circumstances of growing older? 

The answers to this question were very interesting, and sort of all over the map. The subject of religion played a role, in the form of early beliefs that were likely driven through Christian faith, that later, when distancing oneself from the religion, no longer seemed valid or relevant. Changed beliefs in this arena involved things such as attitudes towards homosexuality and toward abortion rights. In both cases, the thing that changed the individuals' beliefs were experiences that served as an education or enlightenment. In one case, learning about biology and development led to a shift in thinking about what it means to be pro-life or pro-choice. In the other case, acceptance of homosexuality was borne out of discovery that someone close to the person was gay. It's interesting to think, in both cases, that the original beliefs were things that had been either adopted by default, or through parenting, or religious upbringing, and that the alteration of belief came from personal experiences, and rational assessment of one's convictions. It is hard for me not to bleed bias into this, because obviously I advocate the latter beliefs, rather than the former beliefs in those two examples. 

It would be interesting to imagine the reverse case of belief switching. Could a person who is strongly pro-choice from upbringing incur a life experience that would swing them in the opposite direction? What would that be? Perhaps being confronted with actually needing to have an abortion, could the guilt or pain over the choice cause someone to change their view? I do not know. And of homosexuality? Are there examples of people who grow up with a spirit of tolerance and acceptance of others' relationship choices, only to later decide that it is a thing deserving scorn? Outside of someone undergoing a radical religious awakening, and subscribing to everything the church has to teach, it would be hard for me to imagine such a scenario.

Some of the other responses had to do with beliefs or expectations that people had which were clearly altered by negative experiences. One respondent suffered an injury that resulted from making assumptions about what their capabilities were in a particular sport. The result of the injury was that they no longer made such assumptions about "Skill A" translating into "Skill B" (e.g. snowboarding and skiing). Another somewhat glib example of belief switching due to negative experience: "I believed that women are reliable. But they left." This reflects a hardening, or loss of innocence or trust, based on having taken a risk, and been disappointed. 

Sometimes our beliefs change because we learn.

Sometimes our beliefs change because we get burned.

Maybe that sums it up pretty well?

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