Choice, Belief, and Cognitive Dissonance

A thought occurred to me today while having a conversation on Facebook.

I know, I know…why am I wading into Facebook conversations? It never solves anything, right? Right. Nonetheless, here we are.

So, the question was whether we choose our beliefs or not, and my position is that we do not choose our beliefs, and gave a brief explanation why. But something that someone said made me wonder whether cognitive dissonance is related to the feeling of having chosen a belief, and then something clicked home for me.

Let’s set the stage….


Choosing Beliefs: free will

So, whether we choose what we believe is related to the question of free will. I mean, if free will weren’t real, then of course we don’t choose our beliefs because our beliefs would be a function of our will which is not free, right? This touches on the concept of compatibilism, which essentially states that if the action or cognitive state reached is consistent with the desires and aims of the entity which performs said act or concludes the said idea, then the act is said to be “free” insofar as as it is what the entity wants.

In other words, if you eat ice cream and you wanted to eat ice cream, even if it were the case that you could not have done otherwise, then because the act was what you wanted to do then the act was chosen “freely.” Alternatively, if you were coerced or forced to do so by another person, then it is not a free choice. If someone force-feeds you ice cream, whether or not you wanted to do so the act was not “free.”

Let’s put the larger question of general free will aside. Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that our will is free in some meaningful sense. So that when I pick up my phone to look at it, I chose to do so (and am not merely addicted to my phone, like some haters might argue). Where does this leave us in terms of beliefs?


What is a Belief?

If you believe something, you are accepting it as true that a thing is real or true. One does not need absolute certainty to believe something, although perhaps it’s good to have a good epistemological foundation upon which to support that belief.

Of course, an astute reader might stop me there and say “Hold on! If you’re claim is that we don’t choose our beliefs, wouldn’t saying that we should have good reasons to believe something pull the rug out from under you, from the start? Wouldn’t it imply that you should only choose the well-supported ideas as your beliefs?”

And that astute reader may have started to see where I’m going with this post. We’ll get there.

For now, what I want to define is what I think a belief is, and not how we should get there. If I say that I believe there is a cat in that box, then I’m saying that I accept it as a real state of the universe that this particular box has a cat in it. It does not mean I can prove that there is one, necessarily, or even that the available evidence is sound or even available to be evaluated. It merely means that I have accepted it as a fact, or a true proposition, but it does not necessarily mean that I know it. (Knowledge is another can of worms, completely).

It has no necessary connection to the truth of whether there actually is a cat in the box; I could be wrong, but I currently believe that there is a cat in the box. My reasons are not relevant to the mere question of belief per se.



Epistemology is the philosophical study of why I’m right and you’re wrong. OK, it’s not quite that, but it’s the study of how we know, why we know, and ultimately it studies the tools we use to create justifications for the truth of propositions.

So, you believe there is a cat in the box. Why do you believe that? How did you come to that conclusion? Does it feel true to you? Can you see a cat in the hole in the box? Is there a meowing sound coming from inside the box? Did you open the box and see a cat in there?

There are gradations of evidence for the belief, and some of them will be more rationally justified, and convincing to people, than others. If you merely feel like there is a cat in the box, but when we shake it it feels light and no hissing and cat noises ensue, then maybe your feeling is wrong. Maybe the meowing sound is a recording being played on a speaker in the box? Maybe it’s a fake cat you see through the hole in the box. Maybe you’re hallucinating both a cat and a box, and in reality there is not even a box at all. Maybe you’re in the matrix, and there is also no spoon.

In short, epistemology is the study of whether the belief is justified but it is also the study of how we come to conclusions which are justified to different extents.

So, how did you come to this belief?

Are you even consciously aware of how you came to believe in your theory of cats in boxes? Did you earn a PhD in cat-in-box-ology? Did you try to open the box and pet the cat? Did you take the cat out of the box because you were trying to put something else in it when your cat decided the box belonged to her? What was the method you used to come to this belief?

And that leads into the next question.


What would it be like if you were wrong?

If it weren’t the case that a cat was in the box, what would that imply about other things you believe and would it affect you in some significant way? If the cat were an illusion, or otherwise just not there, would it shatter your worldview? Would it be painful or somehow life-altering if it were the case that your belief were not true?

How does it feel, and what thoughts do you have, if someone tells you there is no cat in the box? Does it make you curious? Angry? Do you feel pity for the poor deluded fool who can’t perceive the cat? Also, can you actually perceive the cat yourself, or are you inferring it from something else? Maybe you were raised in a home where everyone believed there was a cat in the box, and so you just sort of accepted it from an early age and so the idea seems natural, automatic, and, well…did you ever really choose to believe that the cat was in the box?

I mean…of course you did. Right? You looked at the box. There was something moving in there. You thought you heard a meow. Besides, the box says “cat inside,” and why would someone write that on a box with no cat in it? You really thought about this, and you decided that a cat was in the box. You’re sure. Mostly.

Ok, let’s forget about the damned cat for a minute, and let’s talk about something else. You decide to pick up a newspaper, and you see that it says that your local baseball team won the game last night. Great! that’s awesome. And you believe it, because the newspaper said so. I mean, newspapers make mistakes, but not often of more trivial and easily provable things like this, so you accept it as true, even if only provisionally, because there is evidence which is generally reliable to support it.

But what if someone said “hey, the newspaper made a mistake about last night’s game, and they actually lost in the bottom of the 9th”? What happens then? Did your belief in the outcome of the game waver or change? Did you choose that wavering or shift in belief? Did you, consciously, say to yourself that the question of the result of the game is in the air, epistemologically, and you now choose to believe that they in fact lost? Or did the belief just sort of shift, without you seeing the process take place, and appear in your consciousness without any actual conscious process driving it?

Or this. You see a man steal a candy bar from a convenience store. Did you consciously choose to accept this as reality, or were you convinced by the direct evidence that you saw with your own eyes. I want to emphasize the word “convince” here, because it indicates something happening to you, not you doing something. You became convinced by an experience.

It’s possible you mis-saw what happened; maybe the man actually paid for it already and is just grabbing it now. Maybe he’s the owner of the store, and it’s really his candy bar. But you believe he just stole it, because you saw the evidence (even if you might be wrong). Could you choose to believe that he didn’t steal it? You could conceive of alternative explanations, but until you actually become convinced, whether through rational analysis* or through new information that he didn’t steal it, you will believe that he stole it.

Did you choose to believe that you cannot fly like superman?

You did? Great. Now choose to believe that you can fly like superman.

You can’t, can you?

What’s the problem? You did choose in the first place, right? You were convinced by the evidence of the possibilities of such things, and then chose to believe it, right? Or was it that the belief appeared in your consciousness because of the evidence in its favor? And the only way you could believe otherwise is to see new evidence of your newfound ability to fly.

You do not choose your beliefs. You become convinced of things due to feelings, thoughts, and experiences. Your inability to simply hop from genuine (as opposed merely asserted) belief to belief at your mere whim demonstrates this.

So how is it the case that people believe things that are wrong? If beliefs are the result of evidence, then shouldn’t we only believe things which are evident? Ideally, yes, but there are all sorts of cognitive biases, errors on thinking and perceptions, and deceptions (both external and internal) at play here.


Being Wrong

You believe that someone at work hates you, and is trying to ruin your career. You have seen all the evidence and it worries you. They are always short with you, snippy even. And you had that idea at the meeting which they shot down immediately in front of everyone. She didn’t come to the after work happy hour you organized, even though she came to the other one last month. She never talks to you. She probably plots and schemes at home on how to ruin your life. The evidence is obvious, right?

Well, maybe she doesn’t like you. Maybe she despises you even more than your worst fantasies could ever conjure up. Or, maybe, all of these pieces of evidence have other explanations, and she actually thinks you’re a good employee and thinks highly, or maybe just neutral, about you. It’s very easy to have beliefs that are incorrect for all sorts of reasons.

But you’re convinced anyway. Another co-worker says that you are reading into things too much, and she’s short with most people most of the time. She is always speaking up in meetings with ideas and being critical, even with her best friend who she sees all the time after work for drinks. That’s just who she is.

No, you believe she has it out for you. You’ve become convinced and invested in this belief, and if the belief is challenged then a part of your brain sort of reacts against the other evidence and rejects it, perhaps almost imperceptibly. It’s not quite painful, but it’s uncomfortable. The claim just bumps up against your belief and bounces off. You are experiencing cognitive dissonance.

And the more contradictory information you receive, perhaps the more your belief sticks. And maybe, just maybe, as the evidence starts to mount against your belief the feeling of believing it starts to feel more and more like a choice. The more evidence that she likes you–she invites you to lunch with some people, she compliments your work, she nods her head at the next meeting in reaction to your idea–the more the belief that she actually hates you and wants to destroy you starts to feel like you are choosing to believe it because you are actively maintaining it, even if only unconsciously.

And if I came to you on a day or time while you were thinking about your co-worker and asked you whether we choose our beliefs you say yes; you do choose your beliefs. Perhaps not all of them, but this belief feels like a choice right now, and you are a free, curious, and intelligent person not merely subject to the random whims of random chance in terms of what you believe about the world. Your beliefs are rational, reasonable, and you have given them thought, so of course you choose them.

But that doesn’t address how you came to believe it in the first place. Because the initial question is not “are you choosing to believe this now,” it’s “how did you come to this belief?” It’s well-known that many of our reasons for our beliefs are post-hoc rationalizations, and not the reason we originally came to the belief itself (as I have written about before) ; not how to hold onto, rationalize, or explain your beliefs, but how you came to accept it as true. In other words, we need to be able to distinguish between the origin of a belief and our mind’s ability to maintain, defend, or rationalize a belief after it has made a home in our brain.

And in most cases, I don’t think we know how we started to believe something, especially when it comes to things like religious, political, or larger worldview beliefs. If you really think about where your beliefs come from, you may often be left without a clue. All the justifications that start to perculate up are an after-the-fact rationalization of the thing that’s already there, even if your belief is actually true, rational, and strongly evidenced. You didn’t choose it, you became convinced for good, bad, or mixed good/bad causes and reasons.


Beliefs: Rationalizations versus origins

As I reflect on some of my more certain, core beliefs, I don’t feel a sense of defending or actively maintaining the belief. I feel no cognitive dissonance when I think “this computer is in front of me” or “the world seems like a collection of material things interacting in complicated ways.” But I do feel some cognitive dissonance if I think “Nas’ Illmatic is the best rap album of all time”.

See, I love that album, and I have a fair amount of emotional investment in thinking it’s the best rap album because of my love for it. But I’m also aware that there is evidence out there that it’s not the best rap album. There are some pretty damned good Wu-Tang albums, for example. Also, there are a lot of good albums I probably don’t know about which may be better. I feel, while thinking those words, that I’m actively rationalizing the answer in real time, mostly unconsciously, and it feels more like I’m choosing that belief. I feel the power of having made that choice, but the feeling of having made the choice is not the origin of the belief, it is the experience of rationalizing the belief.

I’ve been fooled to think I chose the belief because of the process of rationalizing the belief, which probably isn’t the reason I came to that belief, is associated with the origin of the belief in my mind. Now, it might be the case that Nas’ Illmatic is in fact the best rap album of all time, but that’s not really relevant here. What’s relevant is that this belief came about through processes I’m not conscious of at all and perhaps could never understand, so it couldn’t possibly be a choice. The rationalizations I come up with later, consciously, may have nothing whatsoever to do with the initial reason. But even if it did, there is no way for me to know this, at least not completely.

And while it’s important to be able to justify our beliefs and be open to allowing those beliefs to change (notice that this is, again, something that happens to us and not something we do) based upon further information and experience, we should be aware that this process is separate from how the belief came to exist in the first place. So, if we have free will and can choose the rational processes by which we justify our beliefs, because we don’t have access to the processes by which the belief formed, we can’t have chosen the belief.


OK dude, what’s your point?

Perhaps it is the case (and I’m not convinced of this yet, and therefore do not believe it, but it’s a compelling thought) that there is a correlation, and mayhap even a causal relationship, between the sensation of choosing a belief and the presence of cognitive dissonance. Therefore, the strength of the feeling of choosing a belief is a sign of the belief itself being in jeopardy.

If I hold a belief, but the evidence seems to contradict or at least challenge it, then as I think about the challenge I have to actively justify the belief. This may cause the sensation of choosing it because I’m being forced to justify my belief fresh, which feels like a choice. But, maybe, if the challenges to my belief result in no sensation of choosing the belief, this might be a sign that cognitive dissonance is not present, and maybe I’m not seeing any conflict with my belief at all.

It could also mean I’m dense, stubborn, or simply not understanding the counter-evidence, but I’m finding it compelling that there might be a relationship here, which I will have to give more thought to.

When a challenge comes to a core belief, such as the earth being relatively spherical, from (let’s say) a flat-Earth proponent, I certainly do have to bring to mind the justifications for my belief, but he feeling of choosing this belief is weak if not nonexistent in this case. The attempts at counter-arguments simply don’t have enough power to bring about the sensation of choosing to believe the earth is round, it’s just there, unperturbed.

But how about whether psychic ability is real? I’m convinced it’s not, and I belief it’s a fraud or a delusion when people claim it’s real, but there is a sensation of the belief being chosen as I really think about it. It’s not inherently impossible, after all. I could imagine ways it might happen, given the right kinds of biological hardware and processes. There is enough room for doubt, that as I think about it the sensation of choosing this belief is more present. But, again, this is the sensation of the justification process, not the origin of the belief. To touch the core belief, the evidence would have to be overwhelming and that, if it ever happened, would be the cause of a new belief (a belief in psychic abilities) which would be new and never completely understood, but only later justified.

So maybe we should keep in mind that the belief that belief is a choice is a sign of cognitive dissonance? Or at least a sign that the belief is being justifiably challenged?Maybe I should try to believe that, and see how well it pans out.

I don’t know, I’m not quite convinced, but it’s an interesting idea to keep in mind and pay attention to, going forward. If it were true that the feeling of choosing a belief were related to a belief being exposed, threatened, and potentially subject to replacement, then it might be worth paying more attention to when people claim they choose their beliefs as possibly more open to having their minds changed.

Then again, someone who says they choose their beliefs and who are also convinced that they cannot be wrong are probably not worth talking to. In other words, I should stay off of Facebook.



*One might be tempted to point out that this internal rational analysis is the point where one chooses to believe. But even if we accept that the rational analysis itself was chosen, the belief comes as a result of the analysis, automatically, based on the soundness of the analysis and your ability to understand it. If you think 1+1=2, and you understand what all those symbols/words mean, then you have no choice but to accept it as true. You don’t choose to believe 1+1=2, you become convinced by the meanings of the symbols and their relation to each other, regardless of whether you chose to think that specific analytical thought.

Intelligence is insufficient

Intelligence is a useful quality to have, but it is not enough if we seek things such as wisdom, fairness, or even simply being correct.

I know some pretty smart Christians.  I know some people who are smart and yet who still have some pretty dated and conservative views on the world.  There are pretty awesome people I meet who react to polyamory unfavourably,and not just as a personal preference.  They are able to think, they have impressive cognitive abilities, and yet while talking to them it’s sometimes obvious that they are missing something from their thought process. To the untrained eye, this may look like lack of understanding, but it may not be that simple.  5 or 10 years ago, when my eye was less trained, I would have argued with such people and tried to convince them of my position.  Their smart, I’d have thought, and so if I present a solid argument they’ll have to agree with this reasonable belief I have.  The problem, here, is two-fold.

First, this presumes I’m actually correct.  I may not be correct, and starting as if I am is no help to me nor my interlocutor.  If I might be wrong, then starting by trying to convince them of my position will not serve greater understanding or intellectual growth since it will either end in my convincing them of an untruth or of an endless argument where they are the one with the hopefully keener eye to see what we are missing.  On top of this, there is a cognitive block that occurs when you argue from a position of “I’m already right,” because it prevents listening.  While you argue your points, in such cases, it is harder to see the others’ points being made because our minds will protect our current worldview against dissonant ideas.  And really smart people are really good at this worldview-protection, because they can easily and quickly think up rationalizations for why an objection isn’t relevant or right.  But by doing this, we miss important facts and perspectives which may be of value to us if we could understand them.  You know, just like how you want your interlocutor to think and feel while making your points.  Funny how that works.

Therefore, we should start with as neutral a position as possible, and be willing to question every assumption, value, and belief we hold.  Also, we should talk to others as if we are willing to do so, because doing so not only looks more open-minded, but actually is part of becoming open-minded.

Second, it presumes that the difference in opinion is one of mere comprehension, when it very well may not be about comprehension at all.  The issue may be a difference in values.  A difference in values is much harder to shift, for many of the same reasons generated by dissonance theory referred to above, and most arguments I’ve heard boil down not to facts, but values.  And while I don’t believe that facts and values are fundamentally different ontologically, they are behaviourally different at very least.  That is, a fact is easily proved or disproved, but because a value is part of the process of thinking and behaving, it is harder to see for what it is and how easily it can lead us stray of rational behavior and beliefs.

I believe that a value can be more true than another value (in terms of how it lines up with what goals we share.  What goals we should share is another question).   A fact is an external reality or claim about said reality which can be checked with empirical and or logical methods.  It is demonstrably testable whether this element has those properties, this mathematical proof works, or that lead is denser than water.  A value is a fact which is part of the process you use to evaluate other kinds of facts, and thus is generally out of the line of sight for your intellectual powers. More fundamentally values are ideas, which makes them physical processes (ontological dualists can exit through the door, as I have no patience for that shit any more), which also means they are also subject to empirical and logical methods as well (although the exact technique to do such a thing is still quite difficult) and thus values can be measured against reality in a similar way as mere ‘facts.’  I’m willing to submit that values can, therefore, be better or worse than other values.  Honesty is better than deceit.  Compassion better than harm. And, maybe, the desire for truth is better than the desire for comfort.

Or is it?

Some people don’t care about the truth, in itself.  I mean, if you are talking about something as banal and mundane as ‘are you telling me the truth about this drink not being poisoned,’ then people usually care about that level of truth.  But what about the willingness to try and learn, grow, and change beyond what is comfortable? What about someone who does not really care what the truth may be, because their faith makes them feel safe and loved? Arguing with such a person about the existence of the supernatural is a wasted effort; they don’t care what’s true.  There are smart people who hold such positions, including people that I know and care about.  Utilizing intellectual means to try and convince such a person will probably be pointless and frustrating for both of you.  They value differently than you, and by applying such a method you are attacking the facts rather than their values.  You need to appeal to their values, and doing that by intellectual means is hella hard, and often pointless (but I don’t think it’s impossible).

Or, what about a person who has a moral worldview which you find abhorrent, flawed, or merely not moral? I know quite a few such people, and I do not address why I disagree with them most of the time, because our disagreement is not about facts, it’s about a specific kind of value; preferences.

Morality is not a reasoned activity fundamentally, even if we can use reason and science to improve it and clarify the problems raised by morality’s mantle.  Morality, especially where it is codified or systematized, is usually (if not always) ad hoc reasoning.  That is, we simply have deep preferences for which we build logical boxes for storage and for hitting our opponents over the head with.  Kant, for example, didn’t start from some idealized blank slate of a mind to reach his deontology, his universalization of maxims, rather he had certain preferences and quirks about his mind that made it feel right to do this and not right to do that, and created (brilliantly, mind you) a logical scaffolding to make sense of these brute facts of his mind into a systematized universal standard.  I happen to share much of those preferences that Kant seems to have had, so I tend to agree with Kant when it comes to ethics (although I thought he was wrong about many other things, like aesthetics).  Where I think Kant erred, in terms of his ethical thinking, was believing that his exercise was a truly intellectual one, rather than one of rationalizing values.  The same is true for Bentham and Mill with their versions of utilitarianism, and perhaps even Aristotle with his Nichomachean Ethics (which everyone who is interested in ethics should read, in my opinion).

So, having intellectualized and semantic arguments about ethics is usually completely pointless (not always, mind you).  When this type of conversation happens, what we tend to observe is a proxy war for our preferences.  The question is not whether my scaffolding is more rationally stable than your scaffolding (I actually really don’t like that game), but whether my preferences themselves actually have better effects on people and in the right ways, and whether (therefore) I might try to shift my values.  All too often, we see something like a person whose preferences are more self/freedom oriented arguing with a person who finds consideration and efficiency more valuable, but they don’t address the values themselves.  Instead, it turns into a conversation about what “rights” mean or some other epiphenomenal factor, which is less helpful to everyone and merely seeks to put on display rhetorical skills.  It’s like lovers trying to hammer out an intellectual solution to feeling unloved; it’s bound to not really help, in the long run, because what the hurt lover wants to just to be loved (it’s a mistake I’m prone to making).

Intelligence is a great tool but without perspective it can often be a blunt tool instead of a sharp one.  Perspective requires the spirit of not only a skeptic, but an archaeologist of the soul (‘spirit’ and ‘soul’ used metaphorically there, of course.  And yes, that’s yet another set of references to Nietzsche).  It’s one thing to use rhetoric, logic, and eloquence to find the flaws in the argument of your opponent, but it is quite another to have the courage to take a hammer to your very psychological and emotional bones.  And when a person can utilize whatever level of intelligence they have and work for the character of self-criticism, then a person begins to approach wisdom.  Because while we don’t choose our level of intelligence, we have some control (assuming free will is meaningful) over how we use it.  The how of our intelligence is more important than its raw power.

Our insecurities will compel us to show off our intelligence.  We want respect, love, and friends. And we can get those things if we are (perceived as ) smart.  That world is all vanity, the neighbour to fear.  Fear is the mind killer, right?  And fear has a tendency to create the illusion of confidence or even to actually create arrogance, where practicing intellectual patience instead might be wiser.  Because even if we are right, we still might have something else to learn if we are not so ready to be right that we only swing our intelligence outward while not watching for the parry and counterstrike.  Also, it does not help to make people like us very much.  You may not care about that.  I care about that, at least a little.  Just don’t make the mistake of allowing your insecurity and fear make you act in such a way that you tell yourself, after the fact, that you didn’t want people to like you when you really did want them to like you.  Because that’s a thing that happens.  Again, it’s called cognitive dissonance, so read about it.