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I just become aware of the book, "Belief: What It Means to Believe and Why Our Convictions Are So Compelling," which was published in April this year (2018).  I include here some excerpts from a review of the book at Science-Based Medicine blog.


In James Alcock’s classic 1995 article “The Belief Engine“, he said, “Our brains and nervous systems constitute a belief-generating machine, a system that evolved to assure not truth, logic, and reason, but survival.” Now he has expanded that thesis into a book, Belief: What It Means to Believe and Why Our Convictions Are So Compelling. It’s much more than a book about belief. In the Foreword, Ray Hyman says it would be an ideal textbook for a course that provides an integrated overview of all the areas of psychology. He says every psychologist and psychology student should read it. It is an outstanding achievement of scholarship; its 640 pages include over 70 pages of references. It covers everything from the latest findings in neuroscience to a catalog of many of the questionable beliefs people hold, and why they hold them.


The belief engine

Alcock says there is nothing fundamentally different about the nature of beliefs that we consider rational and those we deem irrational. We do not choose our beliefs; they are generated and maintained through automatic processes in our brains. He explains what goes into those automatic processes: perceiving, remembering, learning, feeling, and thinking. And he shows how those processes can depart from reality.


The brain uses sensory input to construct schemas that may not represent the real world accurately. It fills in missing information. It creates visual illusions. Attention is selective: we think we are aware of everything in our environment; but we aren’t. We see things (pareidolia) and hear things (apparent words in random noise) that are not really there. We sometimes confuse mental imagery with external reality. So, we need to be cautious when basing a belief entirely on what our senses tell us.


Recent research has revealed how unreliable our memory is, even when we are most confident that we are remembering correctly. Memories are reconstructed each time we remember. Experiments have shown how easily false memories can be implanted and elaborated. Contaminating influences can distort our memories in various ways. Memories “recovered” under hypnosis are confabulations. Eyewitness testimony is notoriously unreliable. Errors and bias in memory have led to false convictions and ruined lives. So, memories should not be treated as unshakeable foundations for our beliefs.

Learning and feeling

Alcock explains how we learn through our own experience, through watching others, through what we are taught, and through what we read. Many beliefs are established in childhood: children soak up new information like a sponge. He covers classical conditioning, operant conditioning, reinforcement, superstitious conditioning, and the power of coincidence. He shows that we must trust others for most of our information, and discusses how we decide whom to trust. He shows how beliefs influence emotions and emotions influence beliefs. Belief in magical remedies can reduce despair when scientific medicine can’t provide a cure. Learning from others means we must trust their accuracy, reliability, and honesty, which leaves us open to error and manipulation. We must use critical thinking skills to help us separate fact from fiction.

-- there are some interesting parallels to Objectivist research. 

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