Don’t “Believe”

Why do people “I believe X” instead of just saying X? Or “I firmly believe in X?” Consider the last ten “believed” claims from featured essay abstracts at the This I believe website:

  1. believes sci-fi gives him a way to connect with his father and sharpen his own intellect in the real world.
  2. believes those regular calls help strengthen the bonds between mother and daughter.
  3. believes it’s important to offer that refuge to her kids because her mother did the same for her.
  4. believes making time to embrace nature gives her the strength to face life’s challenges.
  5. believes we can reach our dreams by embracing our hungers with creativity and passion.
  6. believes the best opportunities for healing may come when no words are spoken at all.
  7. believes he must make time to fulfill more than just the medical needs of his patients.
  8. believes those [sound] waves [from the big bang] are a siren call connecting all of us to the mysteries of the universe.
  9. believes she has found a way to start her journey by focusing on this one moment in time.
  10. believes in the comfort and peace she gets from making bread with those she loves.

In my experience “I believe X” suggests that the speaker has chosen to affiliate with X, feeling loyal to it and making it part of his or her identity. The speaker is unlikely to offer much evidence for X, or to respond to criticism of X, and such criticism will likely be seen as a personal attack.

Feel the warm comfort inside you when you say “I believe” – recognize it and be ready to identify it in the future, even without those woods. And then – flag that feeling as a dangerous bias. The “I believe” state of mind is quite far from being neutrally ready to adjust its opinions in the light of further evidence. Far better to instead say “I feel,” which directly warns listeners of the speaker’s attachment to an opinion.

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