Why “Just Believe”?

Tom Bell:

Children’s fiction often promotes credulity as a virtue. Consider, for instance, the admonitions in Disney’s Peter Pan, in Elf, or in The Neverending Story. These and many other works teach our children, "Just believe!"  Children’s fiction employs this trope so often that it fits a formula. A wise character tries to convince the protagonist that something wonderful will happen if only he or she will earnestly believe an improbability. … Why does this theme occur so often in children’s fiction? … Perhaps religious and political leaders, among others, would like to see youth raised to believe without question. … I propose a different, less conspiratorial cause. I suspect that children’s fiction so often promotes gullibility as a virtue because those who author such works know, at some level, that they rely on children’s gullibility.

David Friedman suggests

An alternative explanation is that adults believe, with some justice, that they know more than children. In their interaction with children, they find themselves in the situation of telling children things the adults are sure are true but either cannot persuade the children of or are not willing to take the trouble to persuade the children of. … Hence the attraction–to adult authors and adult purchasers of children’s books–of scenarios where the wise person representing the adult is telling the younger and less wise person representing the child to "just believe."

These explanations don’t ring true to me.  Instead, I suspect we know our children better gain allies by seeming innocent and trusting.

P.S.  My mother writes Christian tween girl fiction, and today is my parents’ fiftieth wedding anniversary. 

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  • Pablo Stafforini

    These explanations don’t ring true to me. Instead, I suspect we know our children better gain allies by seeming innocent and trusting.

    One of the advantages of evolutionary psychology over classical economics in explaining human behavior is that the former need not credit agents with knowledge that it took experts many decades to acquire and long proofs to demonstrate. This advantage, however, disappears if the evolutionary hypothesis can explain action only by the mediation of beliefs about its truth. Your explanation seems to me to be a case in question. Evolutionary psychology explains why people who seem innocent and trusting will gain better allies. But is it plausible to believe that parents consciously rely on the teachings of evolutionary psychology in deciding how to raise their children?

  • http://michaelkenny.blogspot.com Mike Kenny

    To me it seems like parents want to build up kids self-confidence. They tell their kids they’re particularly good, when they are just average, and parents want their kids to believe in their improbable desires so that the kids have the mentality that helps make the improbable, at least some of it, a reality.

    Also, *seeming* innocent and trusting might be good for a kid, but *being it* might not be. Why wouldn’t parents just teach kids how to present themselves as innocent and trusting, while at the same time teaching them not to have false beliefs? I’m inclined to think the false beliefs are positively motivating.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/felix_typekey/ Felix

    Given that kids sure like to play make-believe, it can also simply be that it’s great fun for a kid to believe that believing does something wonderful. Stories that are great fun for the kids stay with us.

  • burger flipper

    I think we might be making a mistake assuming that these stories appeal first to the parents and not the kiddos, and are somehow foisted upon the latter.

  • http://www.undefined.com/ia jb

    How about the idea that lots of great accomplishments in this world were made by people who had little more than a belief it was possible.

    For example – the World Wide Web – created with the belief that people would find it useful and make websites. Or Google – built from the belief that a better search algorithm would be more compelling. Or the iPod – the belief that an easier-to-use MP3 player with some aesthetic beauty would be a runaway hit. Microsoft – originally conceived on the idea that a new personal computer would need a language (BASIC) to run on it. The lightbulb – on the belief that there was some way to make something incandescent. The Wii – on the belief that people would like a gaming system with inferior graphics, but more innovative controls.

    Most great ideas require significant belief these days, to get past the inertia and impedance of a world that resists change. At the end of the day, if I tell my kids that belief in themselves is useless, I am almost certainly consigning them to a life of mediocrity. Yes, it can be a longshot, but its better than no attempt to take the shot at all.

  • iwdw

    Perhaps it’s just another manifestation of an evolved tendency to trust others in the group — convincing children to accept and believe without question would have historically been very useful.

  • Jef Allbright

    Credulity is (has been) a valid virtue to the extent that an agent with a necessarily limited model of its environment operates within an environment encoding a relatively large amount of evolved “wisdom” of what works.

    It’s profoundly significant that many self-identified rationalists tend to miss this strong answer to the question, betraying the implicit assumption of the “Archimedian point” as discussed earlier on this site.

  • http://yudkowsky.net/ Eliezer Yudkowsky

    Simple but horrifying explanation: The scriptwriters honestly think that credulity is a virtue.

  • Jef Allbright

    Eliezer wrote:

    “Simple but horrifying explanation: The scriptwriters honestly think that credulity is a virtue.”

    Tsk, tsk. Not simpler in the useful sense of maximum entropy. One should not multiply (ontological) entities unnecessarily.

  • anonymous

    Credulity is (has been) a valid virtue to the extent that an agent with a necessarily limited model of its environment operates within an environment encoding a relatively large amount of evolved “wisdom” of what works.

    There is a difference between being credulous or gullible, versus not being overly reliant on our own judgment. If the authors of children’s fiction wanted to promote the latter, they would show people straying from the right way by relying only on their own understanding, and how this can be prevented by following the advice of others. It is the difference between “a large tree with many roots” and “a stick which has just been thrust into the ground” (Yamamoto Tsunetomo).

  • http://www.daegmorgan.net Raven Daegmorgan

    I think they mistake “credulity” and “gullibility” for “hope” and “perseverance”, which are the real lessons being taught in such stories, despite the dark ramblings of modern-day overeducated doomsayers seeking to exploit the worst interpretations of everything in order to support their “academic” careers on the snarky deconstruction (ie: clever insults and put-downs dressed up in fancy word-clothes) too-well-loved by modern culture.

  • Psy-Kosh

    Raven: Seen the movie Polar Express?

    That seemed to have bits which were pretty explicitly “shame on you for trying to reason things out. Just believe.”

  • tcpkac

    “Simple but horrifying explanation: The scriptwriters honestly think that credulity is a virtue.”
    Eliezer’s comment is particularly unhelpful, he seems to have forgotten that the sense of the marvellous is not synonymous with simple credulity, and that these tales did not originate with Hollywood scriptwriters.
    An eternal life of rationality without the marvellous ? That indeed would be – Hell.

  • Nick Tarleton

    I’m confused. What does marvel have to do with credulity?

  • http://www.scheule.blogspot.com Scott Scheule

    It seems like a perfectly sensible way of describing things. One can have false motives and true motives, and we usually use “real” to mean the true motives. Would you prefer they talked about one’s true motives as opposed to their false motives?

  • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

    Evolutionary psychology explains why people who seem innocent and trusting will gain better allies. But is it plausible to believe that parents consciously rely on the teachings of evolutionary psychology in deciding how to raise their children?
    They don’t know what they’re doing, it’s just evolutionarily advantageous for them to do it and so they do.

  • http://www.scheule.blogspot.com Scott Scheule

    Ah, wrong post.

  • tcpkac

    ‘What does marvel have to do with credulity?’, as indicated, not much. Eliezer seems to think that these archaic tales are designed to teach our dear babes to be credulous, I believe they are designed to keep alive the flame of the marveloous, or of wonder.
    The injunction to ‘believe in fairies’ thus becomes an injunction to resist the ‘disenchantment’ of life and to keep alive the sense of wonder.
    I’m sure the Reverend Bayes would, one way or another, agree.

  • Wendy Collings

    “Children’s fiction often promotes credulity as a virtue.”

    Um, how often, exactly? What percentage of children’s stories promote scepticism (e.g. don’t trust what the wicked witch/nice old lady says) as a virtue instead? And what percentage of children’s stories assume that children will trust their own eyes and ears? (i.e. if they happen to meet a gryphon in their backyard, they’ll believe in it, but a gryphon in a story is just made up.)

    The three well-known examples Tom Bell quotes don’t convince me that children’s fiction is overrun with this credulity stuff. How about some hard facts on what’s really out there?

  • Caledonian

    The author would be better off examining the book The Neverending Story rather than the movie The NeverEnding Story.

    Even in the movie, the point was that the protagonist should have taken his dreams seriously, rather than regarding his imagination as a frivolous waste of time, as everyone urged him to.

    There is a real concern, here. Far too many people seem to associate being gullible with a sense of wonder and awe. But the concern is not well-supported in those articles.

  • http://www.daegmorgan.net Raven Daegmorgan

    Psy, I have seen most of it. I should note my kids love the movie, but I doubt they come away from it with the idea that being gullible is a virtue. Such an interpretation is, in my estimation, a stretch of the presentation and only successful viewed out-of-context.

    So here’s an interesting question: if you find yourself on an impossible train to Santa-land populated by ghosts and faeries, what do you believe?

    Drive yourself crazy reasoning that it can’t be happening because it breaks “the rules”, or test the parameters of the situation despite them conflicting with your previously established beliefs?

  • http://www.easyabortions.com David D

    I really think this may be a case overthinking the “problem”. Kids dig fantasy. They WANT to believe in magic and whatnot. Their parents buy them books they like, the market does the rest.

    On a related note, Scooby Doo was a great example of a children’s program that promoted skepticism. Not only was there always a rational explanation for for supposedly supernatural events, but the person “behind the curtain” always had a rational reason to scare people away from the haunted house or whatever.

  • http://tech.groups.yahoo.com/group/futarchy_discuss Tom Breton

    Are we perhaps overlooking a simpler explanation rooted in the mechanics of story-telling?

    Perhaps this trope has proved useful in telling stories to kids who haven’t quite learned how to suspend disbelief yet. It also might function as a means of introducing a fantasy situation or making a fantasy situation more plausible by explaining it as something only available to believers.

  • brent

    “Um, how often, exactly? What percentage of children’s stories promote scepticism (e.g. don’t trust what the wicked witch/nice old lady says) as a virtue instead?”

    often enough that if I gave you this line “…but it IS true Timmy, all you have to do is believe…” you will instantly recognise the line from scores of movies.

  • ChrisA

    Perhaps the meme is popular as it makes the dumber kids feel better, it allows them to deal with the situation where a smarter kids say something is impossible, that they want to believe in, for example Santa or fairies. On the other hand, perhaps it is a valuable caution along the lines of Burkean conservatism: the stock of reason is limited, and you should be humble about what you can know, better to accept traditional thought as your guide rather than reason.

  • gutzperson

    Perhaps kids do not have to be dumb to believe in fairy tales. Most kids learn that their fairy world is not true when they grow older. Ever thought, that it is actually a good exercise to think and explore the impossible. Problem is, if kids (and adults) get stuck in fairy tale worlds. Good thing is, because of this some people might want to discover new things, and by not believing that things are impossible even extend boundaries of current knowledge and systems. Without fairy tales no AI and no talk about singularity! Kids who loved and indulged in the fantasy worlds of books and films might become story tellers and filmmakers, other artists, explores, scientists and sometimes (unfortunately) religious leaders.

  • http://www.nancybuttons.com Nancy Lebovitz

    Maybe exhorting children is compulsive behavior for adults, and “Believe!” seems innocuous enough that it can be thrown into stories that don’t actually have a moral point.

    Afaik, Hans Christian Anderson’s stories don’t have “Believe!” in them, and I suspect exhortions to believe is a relatively modern thing, possibly a side effect of religious tolerance. There’s still a background belief that religion is a good thing, while it wouldn’t be welcome to promote any particular religion to a general audience.

  • Constant

    The content of fiction is largely market-driven – especially if we limit ourselves to looking at fiction that has already been filtered out by market success. Thus we might expect that the reason a lot of fiction promotes credulity, is that children want to believe. They are not the only ones who want to believe. Religions are popular among adults.