Naming Beliefs

Rolf Nelson points out that we don’t have good terminology to call “beliefs we would have had if we didn’t choose to be persuaded by the fact that everyone else believes differently”. It’s an important distinction because this kind of belief is arguably more helpful to know, for both majoritarians and others.

In classic group-decision experiments like “guess how many beans in the jar”, you get less accurate answers if people call out their guesses one after the other, because they are revealing their adjusted beliefs, that take into account the social consensus (perhaps without realizing it). If people write their answers down, we get Rolf’s kind of beliefs, uninfluenced by the consensus view, and those have been shown to be more accurate on average.

So Rolf’s point is very relevant about the lack of terminology. Devil’s Advocacy is about as close as I can come, but that doesn’t capture it. What do you suggest would be a good way to describe these kinds of beliefs? Once more people start making a conscious distinction between the two modes of believing, how should we talk about it?

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  • How about, “locally Bayesian beliefs” v. “globally Bayesian beliefs”?

  • pre-consensus versus post-consensus?

  • A good question. Non-social beliefs? Independent belief? Naive belief? First impressions? “It seems to me that”?

  • Keith

    Autological beliefs versus heterological beliefs

  • Constant

    There isn’t a sharp dividing line. There are different degrees of independence. Even if “people write their answers down” without peeking at others’ answers, that only guarantees a certain degree of independence. It does not rule out, say, the possibility that they discussed the topic of beans in jars in a previous class and achieved consensus then. And there are many more subtle ways in which people’s opinions can be dependent on the opinions of others. (It is astonishing that people from far away speak almost exactly the same language as I do – if we share that inheritance, what other inheritance do we share? How large a part of me is the shared zeitgeist, and therefore is not independent of the corresponding part of others?)

    Depending on ways you ask the question, you might get different answers. If you ask the question:

    What beliefs would you have had if you hadn’t heard others express their opinions here today in this classroom?

    you are likely to get a different answer than if you ask the question:

    What beliefs would you have had if you hadn’t heard others express their opinions over the past semester?

    If you go back far enough, peeling back the layers of outside influence, trying to reach the authentic self, the core independence of mind, you might find in many cases that the the onion is hollow.

    In short, you really need to specify the scope of independence. If you leave this unspecified you run into difficulties.

  • First-order beliefs

    First beliefs

    Initial thoughts

    Primary beliefs

    Pre-social belief

    Independent impression

  • Mark Spottswood

    A hermit belief?

  • Caledonian

    ‘Potentially justifiable’.

  • g

    Raw? Uncorrected? Uncompensated? Endogenous? Autonomous? (Of the ones already proposed, I quite like “independent” and “initial”.)

  • Good suggestions.

    Criteria include:

    1. Is it likely that the average person who hasn’t heard the term before will guess correctly what it means? (+ to pre-consensus, – to autological for being too opaque, – to “first beliefs” for being too ambiguous, as it might also mean your gut feeling before applying any logical analysis)

    2. Is it easily adjective-izable? Is there an obvious antonym that satisfies criteria 1? (- to “It seems to me that” for not being an adjective, – to autonomous unless there’s a suggestion for an antonym to pair it with)

    @Constant There isn’t a sharp dividing line. There are different degrees of independence.

    Yes, if only humans and their languages had evolved some type of general mechanism to deal with cases where adjectives apply to greater or lesser degrees.

  • Socially mediated v. socially un/nonmediated beliefs.
    Insulated (or aloof or immure) belief v. conforming belief.

  • Anna Salamon

    I second “independent impression”. I also like g’s proposal of “raw impressions” or “uncorrected impressions” for a wider range of of purposes, e.g.

    “Before correcting for for [what other people think / overconfidence bias / some other factor], my impression is ___”.

    As Constant points out, there are multiple kinds of impressions that might usefully be tracked and reported. In addition to finding vocabulary, we should discuss what kinds of impressions are worth naming.

  • Constant

    Yes, if only humans and their languages had evolved…

    Let’s apply your insight here to crime. Since crime comes in different degrees, let’s just come up with one word for it and then use the modifiers which English has “evolved” to talk about degrees. So, crime is now all “rape and murder”. All criminals are rapists and murderers, only some are “slightly” rapists and murderers, and others are “very much” rapists and murderers.

    Doesn’t work very well. So, sometimes, ignoring the details until after you come up with a name and relying on the “evolved” degree words to do the heavy lifting doesn’t work.

  • “Uncorrected impression” is awkward, but sounds appropriately humble – considering that the main reason people don’t offer their uncorrected impressions is the fear of dissent. “Uncorrected impression” says that you accept the notion of group correction, but this is the independent component of your information.

    Actually, “Independent component” also has merit, but I still think “uncorrected impression” might work better socially.

  • celeriac

    If you and another person are deriving your beliefs from shared experience (witnessing the same events, reading the same literature, being educated on the same formalisms), then you will each use that shared information to come up with your beliefs. Yet it seems that when combining beliefs you should only count shared information once. So “independent” sounds more accurate than “initial” or “uncorrected.”

  • Caledonian

    Why don’t you offer suggestions for guidelines as to when others can serve as correctives and when they can’t?

  • Maybe it would be reasonable to consider one set of terms for the cognoscenti, such as those of us posting here, who are familiar with the concept; and another phrasing (that would avoid jargon) for use among the general public. Among the latter group, you could say something like, “Ignoring the general opinion, my personal observations would support X.” You might even get away with “My personal opinion would be X”, or “Based on my personal knowledge, X”.

    It would probably make sense only to use this kind of circumlocution in certain situations. One case would be where the listener would care about whether you are just echoing other views or making a concerted effort to offer your own independent input, such as in group estimation situations. Occasionally panelists are all asked to make estimates of when or whether something will happen, and while we might assume or at least hope that they will offer independent information, there might nevertheless be a degree of influence, especially if they are not aware of this distinction. If someone makes it clear that they are offering one or the other flavor of estimate then that helps the audience (and in fact I have occasionally seen this happen).

    Another case would be if you want to proselytize for bias-awareness. Saying you’d believe X if not for the fact that everyone else believes Y, so you’re going along with the crowd, will no doubt trigger questions, possibly hostile (as we have seen expressed here occasionally). This can open up an opportunity to talk about some of the issues we discuss here.

  • If it makes sense to say what your personal analysis says while simultaneously adjusting your private opinions (which might be revealed in your actions) closer to the opinions of the majority then … it makes sense to give verbal support for an unpopular policy (if that’s what your reasoning says) while dodging any actual involvement. There are lots of examples all across the political spectrum.

    In other words, the existence of hypocrisy is not necessarily a reason to dismiss the words of the hypocrites out of hand.

  • That’s an interesting point, Joseph. Of course it is a standard principle that the merits of an argument are independent of the character of the arguer. But your comment suggests something else, that in some cases hypocrisy may be justified and appropriate.

    Hypocrisy is one of the most reviled of human faults in today’s world; it sometimes seems that even mass murderers receive less condemnation than hypocrites. But in a way the hypocrite can be seen as doing us all a favor, by advocating an idea or position which might otherwise not see much support. And the hypocrite can perform this service while still following the majority in ignoring the position in practice.

    Many of us have expressed the concern that if we had greater conformity, while only advocating sincerely held beliefs, we would see a diminished social discourse and less diversity in our intellectual culture. Hypocrisy may be a solution to this quandary. I have long felt that our society has made a fetish of intolerance for hypocrisy and has elevated its importance excessively. This is another argument for being more forgiving of hypocrites and recognizing the positive contribution they make to society.

  • You claim there’s literature showing that people take other people’s opinion into account too much. Robin claims there’s literature showing that people take other people’s opinion into account too little. How can you resolve these views?