Sunday, May 16, 2010

The Carrot-Stick Hypothesis for Why We Believe

Here is a curious observation: given the same evidence, people generate very different beliefs. This includes different political beliefs, different economic beliefs (like what is wrong with the economy) and different religious beliefs. Even those that share a religion, such as Christianity, diverge into all sorts of denominations with conflicting beliefs. And the divergence of beliefs is not only between people, but in the same person.  Thinking of myself: my beliefs have changed dramatically over the course of my life.  If it is not the evidence that has changed, then what drives this divergence in beliefs?


My hypothesis is that a carrot-stick combination drives our beliefs. On one hand we have a strong tendency to believe that which we find attractive. This includes those things that are familiar or that are respected by our peers or by those we admire.  These ideals are like carrots that attract us until we make them our own. Reality, on the other hand, is a stick that can hit us on the head when our beliefs diverge too much from it. So, while we might find it attractive to believe that we can walk on water, it does not take too long for reality to dissuade us from that belief. Our beliefs are pulled by carrots and hemmed in by sticks.  Ideally carrots would always pull us in directions compatible with reality, but clearly this is not the case as many ideals are opposed to reality. People can progress a long way following carrots that are contrary to reality, but if they are seeking truth they are liable to be corrected by a stick at some point.


Now our world is filled with carrots. Every family, every community, every society, every civilization has its own ideals, all coexisting and to some extent competing with each other. So perhaps it is not surprising that there is such a divergence of beliefs; we humans are capable of finding many different things attractive.  


Beliefs that grow and propagate widely have a number of properties. They are, or can be, attractive to a large number of people. They spread from person to person. The more they grow the more attractive they become. And finally, but quite importantly, they are not easily opposed or smacked down by reality. Belief in God is a prime example. We instinctively crave order and safety in the universe, and what can give greater order and safety than an all-knowing creator? The fact that others believe in God and find fulfillment in their belief is itself attractive, enabling this belief to propagate. Parental belief in God is easily absorbed by children. And since God is postulated to be invisible, he is (mostly) safe from the stick of reality. So we should not be surprised that theism has conquered much of this world. But every community has its own concerns and ideals that it finds attractive, and hence there are likely as many beliefs in what God is like as there are believing communities.


I can understand my own life using this carrot-stick model. Growing up in a Christian family and Christian community I absorbed their ideals and along the way was drawn to the same beliefs. The ideals spurred me on and deepened my involvement with the community and in evangelism which resulted in bigger and better carrots as my faith grew. So what brought it all to an end? You can read about it in this post: Losing My Faith. In effect it was reality smacking me on the head and my decision not to retreat from reality, but rather follow it. It is natural, when reality smacks us, to avoid it by rationalizing it away to enable us to keep our carrots. I certainly did not want to lose all I had acquired (my community and church and hopes) and certainly I had many times kept that stick at bay. But this time, after a long, extended struggle, the stick knocked me off one path onto another. Am I still lead by carrots? Undoubtedly so. But my path is now aligned better with reality.


To conclude, we like to think of ourselves as masters of our beliefs; able to discern truth from falsehood and superstition from science. But I postulate that humans are actually closer cousins to donkeys than rational agents. We herd together and our beliefs are primarily pulled by carrots. Sometimes, though, we hit ourselves against a stick and change course.