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How do we change what we believe?

Written by Executive Researcher Louis Raphaël Afford Lessof

Bruxelles, August 2020









Belief is the conviction that something is true


Belief has been characterized by philosophers as the attitude or mental state of regarding something to be true


(Jamie Buckland 


This covers an enormously wide range of different beliefs.  


  • Religious belief is associated with faith in a particular god or gods and a system of worship or practice. It is often deeply embedded in a culture and dictates not just rules for living and ethical codes (Box 1) but diet, dress, and customs.


  • Superstition involves accepting ‘the supernatural’ and non-rational beliefs often around good and bad luck. It is sometimes associated with folk lore or ‘the old ways’ of doing things (Box 2).


  • Scientific belief is consciously rational and has a range of well-defined methods for examining and assessing evidence, analyzing, reasoning (deductive, inductive) verifying findings and establishing what is ‘objectively’ true. Science allows that new evidence will be uncovered shifting what is known over time.

  • People also believe or accept as true things they have experienced, or been told and never thought to question

  • Childhood beliefs include all these and stories (about Father Christmas or the Tooth Fairy) that are “for children only”. 












Similarly, if people have taken on superstitions as part of their upbringing or from their peers or social group (whether this means Danes throwing broken dishes at houses or racing drivers getting into their car from the left-hand side) then changing their beliefs will not be as simple as pointing out that the actions are irrational.


This is not to say that irrational and emotive beliefs cannot change – they do. Children are often brought up to believe in magical beings who bring them gifts if they are good and play tricks on them if they have been bad. These beliefs may be sincerely held but they rarely survive into adolescence. They are changed (or cancelled) by a mix of experience, understanding and the way the expectations of peers and mentors shift.


This highlights another important determinant of belief. The influence of the peer group (as well as family and community). Changing the belief of one individual when the rest of their group remains committed to the prior belief is far more challenging than when a view or change of view is widely accepted. 

their group remains committed to the prior belief is far more challenging than when a view or change of view is widely accepted. 







Fig 1: Levers to change behavior need to reflect the type of belief. 

Changing beliefs is not the same as changing behavior but theories of change offer useful insights. 

Theories of change from research on behavioural and organizational change; from psychology and marketing all give insights into changing beliefs.


Bayes’ theorem states that a new view will come about as the result of a rational assessment of the probabilities of new evidence being true leading to the updating of beliefs about the world.  


Most models of behaviour change however, visualize things as a cycle that involve the realization that something needs to be changed followed by steps to implement new patterns of behaviour with things slipping backwards on occasion (Fig 2.).

The more sophisticated models pay attention to 

  • feelings (how the individual relates emotionally to the behaviour); 

  • norms (what is perceived as acceptable in society or the social group); 

  • agency (or the degree of control the individual has); and 

  • the environment (what goes on in the wider setting).


Psychologists also recognize that people can be resistant to changing beliefs even when they are wrong because of cognitive dissonance (Leon Festinger in 1957). In this case people persist in believing things when they know they are wrong because they have too much ‘invested’ in the erroneous belief and they cannot abandon it without feeling discomfort (dissonance).

Figure 2: Behavior change as a cycle





























The lessons of behavior and organizational change (Box 3) and from marketing suggest that changing what people believe is a complex business that needs to start with some willingness on the part of the person to make a change. The more a person is interested in achieving change

the better chance there is of a successful shift in understanding and / or values. 


However, the nature of the belief and the context in which the individual operates – not least their peer group – will also have an important influence on the likelihood of sustained change.  


The more that the ‘new’ belief is aligned with the person’s values and is compatible with their other views (and those of their milieu) the less resistance there will be.  Similarly, messages that are expressed in a way that chimes with the person’s values and experience will be more readily adopted. 


Seeking to change beliefs is not unproblematic 


The whole notion of changing beliefs is not straightforward. Changing a set of beliefs about how we treat other people or animals to become more respectful or more considerate would be commendable. Changing them on the importance of the environment, might lead to more ‘green’ transport and reduce greenhouse gas emissions and changing notions of religious or racial superiority could reduce intercommunal violence or racism. 

However, seeking to change how people perceive god or their elders or what is right and wrong is open to abuse.   


There have been times where the beliefs of whole societies have been manipulated to rationalize discrimination and inequality or to justify war. There have also been instances where cults have ‘captured’ individuals and dictated what they should believe, denying them the freedom of choice and of thought. 




Beliefs are at root deeply personal. They stem from a range of understandings and experiences and reflect on the family, education, culture and wider society of the person who holds them. They also range from the trivial to the profound.


People grow and evolve and change their views with time. They may consciously seek to change their beliefs – where they perceive that they are ‘wrong’ (discriminatory) or unhelpful (for example low self-esteem). They may also seek to change other people’s beliefs to share a ‘better informed’ perspective, to make them align with their own views, or to promote an ideology they are committed to. 


In these cases understanding the nature of the belief; the ways behavior changes; and how to share messages so that the resonate with the person or people to be convinced, will all help to achieve change. However, while there are many beliefs that are negative and could benefit from being adjusted, seeking to change beliefs can all too easily trespass on the individual, their identity, their traditions and their rights.


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Different types of belief have different roots. These affect how those beliefs might be changed. 


If a belief is based on evidence and a commitment to rational, scientific methods, then presenting new, verifiable evidence that shifts the weight of evidence should be sufficient to change the belief.


Similarly, if belief is based on experience (all dogs have been nice to me therefore all dogs are nice), it should change as soon as a contradictory experience occurs (if for example a dog bites you). 


However, the reason people believe things is often less clear-cut. They hold huge numbers of things to be true because they have been told that they are and have not questioned them, but changing their minds is not as simple as telling them something else. Their willingness to adopt a new belief will depend not just on the ‘quality’ and credibility of the new information but also on the context in which they accepted the belief at the outset (Fig 1). 


Schools, for example, often simplify information to make it easier for (younger) children to grasp. This means that the science they learn at 12 may be ‘wrong’ in some respects and will be replaced by a more ‘correct’ version if they continue to study the subject at 17. Children do not (typically) question what they are told by their teachers. They tend to believe it. However, as they are unlikely to have a strong commitment to the way they first understood chemical bonding, changing their beliefs about it will be as simple as giving them a new, more sophisticated version. It becomes more complex when the lessons are on something like history where the beliefs may have more emotional resonance. The Battle of Waterloo is a case in point. The English believe they won. They are also convinced that the French teach their school children that they won (although this is not strictly the case there are French historians who argue strongly that the battle was a draw). Changing the opinion of a child (from either country) who has been taught they were the victors will be more difficult because the ideas touch on national identity and pride and a continuing sense of competition fueled by modern politics.  

This complexity is amplified when it comes to changing a belief that is based on faith or on traditions.  If someone has religious faith and their belief is non-rational and/or bound up with their cultural identity changing it may be extremely difficult. This is particularly so if the beliefs are seen as part of a divinely revealed truth, but it will also be difficult if change is felt to be a betrayal of family and of long held traditions. 


Box 1: Key beliefs in world religions  

  • Hindus believe in a continuous cycle of life death and reincarnation (samsara) and karma which is a universal law of cause and effect. 

  • Buddhists believe that nothing is fixed or permanent but that if you follow the path of the Buddha in seeking enlightenment you can reach nirvana a transcendent state with no sense of self  

  • Christians, Muslims and Jews all believe in one god (in the Abrahamic tradition) but have very different views on god and god’s prophets. They all believe in prayer, charity, fasting and pilgrimage but in their own ways. 

  • The Shinto believe humans are good and that bad is caused by evil spirits that can be warded off with ritual.

Box 2: Some superstitions

People believe that the following bring bad luck 

  • Friday the 13th 

  • Breaking a mirror

  • Spilling salt (although throwing salt over your shoulder protects you) 

  • Crows and ravens (Korea, UK)

  • Sitting at the corner of a table (Hungary and Russia)


And that the following bring good luck 

  • An itchy palm 

  • Knocking on wood 

  • A nazer boncugu (a blue and white amulet that protects from the evil eye in Turkey, Greece and Iran)

  • A four-leaf clover (Ireland)

  • Eating grapes or beans on New Year’s Eve (Spain, Argentina)

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