Beliefs and Social Influences

It’s easy to forget what it was like when you were a child and an adult’s word was law. I remember asking a family member if Hell was real when I was a child and they replied “yes” with such certainty that I was instantly compelled to know that it must be true. When we become adults ourselves we realise that almost everyone talks nonsense and has no evidence to support their beliefs, yet will still espouse that nonsense like it’s fact. But actually it’s only the lucky ones who realise this. Looking at polls on the topic, most of them show that if you were raised with a specific religion then you have an 80% likelihood of staying in that religion through adulthood and a large percentage of the leftover 20% don’t let go of religion; they just convert to a different one. Leaving aside whether any religion is “true” or not, what does this say about the authenticity of the beliefs we hold currently? If we use these percentages as a guide then we can at least assume that a significant portion of what we know to be true today is merely something we carried from childhood to now. The most obvious being religious and political beliefs but the majority will be more subtle and unnoticeable.

Social conditioning incentivises us to stick to the beliefs of our peers, whether true or false, and if we don’t we risk becoming a pariah or be shunned from our group for changing our beliefs. If an adult tells the childhood-you not to talk to strangers you generally listen. If an adult tells you there is only one God and it is the Catholic God you generally listen. Because life used to be a lot harder you wouldn’t have made it to old age without learning a thing or two about the world. Most of it being knowledge that can be passed down and to a child’s mind would seem like law. So why are we incentivised to stick to the beliefs of our peers? And how can we know if we believe something because of our peers or because it is actually true?

It is pretty much accepted that we, as a society, form peer groups and create social norms and rules that should be followed. And we know most of this is generally subjective. Some Amazonian tribes practice omnigamy (everyone sleeps with everyone), some practice polygamy and some monogamy. Each one thinking that the way they live is the right way. Not only do we, like the Amazonians, adhere to the beliefs of our family and peers, we do it unknowingly and sometimes unwillingly. Some people will participate unwillingly so they don’t risk being shunned from their community. This is common is Mormon and Amish religions, but the majority conform unknowingly. The simple answer to “why are we incentivised to stick to the belief of our peers?” is probably for survival. Many people even proclaim and appeal to popularity saying, “2.2 billion Christians can’t be wrong!”. Aside from the obvious, that the rest of the world (5.3 billion), disagree with this statement, 2.2 billion people can be wrong, and if not explicitly wrong then they are still wrong in the mind of anyone who doesn’t hold their view.

How can we know if we believe something because of our peers or because it is actually true?
For most people this is probably going to be neither possible nor desirable. We don’t like being wrong and we don’t want to actively seek out the areas in which we are wrong. We generally wait until there is no other alternative than to be wrong and then we accept it, save for a few extremely stubborn people. The other problem, the bigger one, is the fact that we don’t try to find out things we already think we know. We only seek to know things we don’t already know. For example, if you want to secretly record a conversation because you want evidence of something and you don’t know whether this is legal or not then you would most likely try to find out this information because it is something you do not know. But if you think you already know that this is a perfectly legal practice then you would have no reason to try to know this information. The only reason you would think this is legal and then try to find out if it is or not is if you doubt the truth of your own claim, and this would mean that you, in fact, don’t know it.

It is not practical to have a philosophical crisis and question whether everything you believe in is actually true or only the consensus of your peers. But we can be more open to new information. One of the best ways is to make sure that we process new information in the absence of highly emotional states. I have already written about how emotion inhibits our ability to think critically, you can read that here. Emotion is elicited whenever a closely held view is presented with counter evidence. So we can conclude that if we have an emotional reaction to reading or hearing something that challenges one of our beliefs then we should drop it for now and come back to it later when we are more neutral.

If we are incentivised to believe what our peers believe and don’t actively seek to prove ourselves wrong or confirm whether what we currently believe is true or not, then can we conclude that a significant amount of what we currently believe must be false? And if we are told something is true because so many people also believe it, an appeal to popularity, then should we think of this as a red flag and perhaps look into it more?



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