The other day someone asked me if I thought that people who write letters to the editor, especially if the letter's contents express a heavy bias of some kind, actually expect that what they write will make a person of a different persuasion change his or her mind.

I answered that such a result seemed highly unlikely, but added that perhaps such letter writers are mostly addressing themselves to others who already think as they do. Almost as if they were saying, "Hey, you're not alone! You and I are on the same page."

Lately, this kind of mental exchange has been labeled as "confirmation bias." Perhaps each of us seeks comfort in looking for and finding another person (or "source") whose model of the world ("the way things really are") matches that of our own. Often, that model takes its expression in the form of a "belief or "conviction."

As a lifelong student of psychology, I thought it might be useful to share a psychological definition of belief from that field of study. To wit: a belief is an assertion about wish fulfillment. Put another way, it is a statement about what a person wants to be true.

A belief (or conviction) can be about many different things, such as religion, politics, values, personal relationships (e.g., how we "see" another person or even ourselves), etc. Wanting something to be true does not make that wish "bad," of course, because some of things we wish for can be quite good, like believing that people should love one another.

Other beliefs can be quite questionable, like believing that human "nature" is essentially weak or "bad." So believing in and of itself is not on trial in the courts of public debate, whereas the contents of one's beliefs often are. (And should be, some may add).

I have found that it is usually non-productive to attempt to use logic or reason to unseat a person's beliefs (if you happen to disagree with them) because, often, a belief is simply an assertion about something that cannot be proved or disproved through a display of "facts" or rational argument.

For example, if someone believes the Bible to be the word of God, there is no way to demonstrate the proposition one way or another (although, certainly, advocates on both sides often try to do so).

The study of logic, which is a foundational course in the study of philosophy, uses a principle that has become part of our American legal system: the burden of "proof" is on the side of the "positive," not on the "negative." In other words, someone who states that something is so is required to provide proof (in courts, "evidence"), while proof that something is not so (or true) is not. Juries may find a defendant not guilty but not "innocent."

We would do well not to challenge another's contrary views or beliefs at their conclusions, but, rather, at their premises (beginnings). In many cases a person's premises are simply one or more experiences they have had that have led them to their conclusions. Some of those experiences might take us back to our childhoods, while others occurring later might come in the form of personal events, books we've read, classes we've taken, people we've met one on one or at public gatherings, attending to television or printed news—the list is endless.

The point here is that when we have experiences we all interpret them with respect to what they "mean," for we are, all of us, "meaning makers." It is in this context that we can engage in some useful, non-antagonistic dialog, by asking questions, such as, "What is it that led you to interpret this in this way?" And, "What has led you to ignore interpretations that seem to conflict with your own?"

If someone is using a personal experience to validate their view, it is useful to ask them if they can question a general conclusion (belief) they've made if it is based on a limited and/or local single (or even set) of experiences.

It is also helpful to ask another person, when they make a comment about something they assert as true, "What is the source of the information you're using to support your view?" When they answer that question, sometimes we can follow up by asking, "Have you looked at sources that are taking a different position on this issue?"

Often, they dismiss such a question by stating that those "other" sources cannot be trusted. When that happens, you know you are with someone whose biases are stronger than their objectivity.

Some people actually say things like, "What I'm saying is common knowledge," or, "Listen, everybody knows..." That's when you know that you are probably wasting your time.

Richard Morgan


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