How Do Emotions and Beliefs Relate

The Relationship Between Emotions and Beliefs

Updated on September 10, 2015
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Dr. Thomas Swan studied cognition and culture at Queen’s University Belfast. His work explores theories of emotion, attention, and memory.

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

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.

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When forming beliefs, we all like to think we’re perfectly scientific. | Source

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.

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

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.

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

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