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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  • Seems to me to just be a more humble way of saying X. It suggests that they recognize the difference between believing in something and knowing with absolute certainty that it is true.

    • wophugus

      I think that is the most prevalent use. “I believe you are wrong” doesn’t mean “I choose to believe you are wrong and have affiliated with it and made it part of my identity.” Instead it’s a way to signal a lack of dogmatic certainty and/or to keep the conversation cordial.

      Weirdly enough, I just subconsciously did the exact same thing by beginning that last paragraph with “I think.”

    • David C

      This. I remember from my communications class reading how women are more likely to put such disclaimers in front of their statements than men. So I think this is likely due to the individual’s level of conscientiousness and one’s own attachment to that idea matters very little.

      • calicoAngelina

        When I find myself writing or saying “I believe…”, I rephrase my thought, replacing my belief with facts that I feel support the conclusion.

        I’ve pondered why I do this, and the best I can come up with is, since my belief in a conclusion is not any kind of fact, it’s arrogant to introduce it into the conversation as if it has some kind of factual standing.

        In other words, I don’t experience that kind of disclaimer as a way of softening the statement – Quite the opposite. It’s as if I’m saying “Don’t bother yourself with all these complex facts, I’ve already figured it all out and will tell you what the correct belief is”.

        For what it’s worth, I’m a woman.

    • Grant

      In most cases of decent conversation or debate I agree with you. However, in some situations when people seem emotionally attached to an idea, the term ‘belief’ hints that they are using pure intuition or feeling in their thought… of which they can’t be swayed from.

  • With respect to facts, “I believe” tends to qualify its object with doubt.

    With respect to values, “I believe” tends to intensify and signal affiliation. “I believe the children are our future.”

    • Jeffrey Soreff

      Agreed. And then there is:

      Everybody should believe in something — I believe I’ll have another drink. — W. C. Fields.

    • Kevin Dick

      +1 to this interpretation. Kudos to Mike Gibson for putting it so succinctly.

    • I will pile on and also give a thumbs up.

      The web site has an intentionally touch feely look to it. It does not project precision or certitude.

  • anon

    Your ‘I believe X’ claims are drawn from a site which hosts essays written by “people from all walks of life”, describing “the core values that guide their daily lives”. So yes, these people are expressly claiming X as part of their core identities, but this is hardly a representative sample of how the expression ‘I believe X’ is used in general.

  • Michael E Sullivan

    As an aside, your suggestion of “I feel” is a good one in some ways, but amusing to me.

    My wife and I have developed “I feel that you are a big jerk” as humurous code for the problems with reifying “I feel” statements as experienced in literature and training for helping professions. (She works with homeless and trauma victims on a daily basis).

    The iron rule in that context is that you can’t argue with a person’s feelings. Many people end up using the fact that you can put “I feel” in front of just about any statement and have it taken seriously, even if it is clearly a statement of dubious opinion or debatable/wrong fact.

  • Ben

    I take “I believe X” to mean “X is true at less than 100% likelihood, but I will act as if X is true at 100% likelihood.”

    It’s a willing admission either of uncertainty or of bias. You could use suspect in place of the first meaning; I’m not sure there’s a good alternative for the second. You could choose to confront biases when you identify them, or to ignore them altogether, in which case you wouldn’t need the word. But I think a lot of people are okay with believing things they know aren’t necessarily true.

    • Jeffrey Soreff

      “suspect” does sound like a good way to capture the less-than-certainty meaning. How about “proceed under the assumption of X” for the second?

    • Nikki Olson

      Is ‘I think’ any better than ‘I believe’?

  • Are you at all familiar with “non-violent communication” (NVC)? The idea is to maintain neutrality of language by emphasising the awareness that one’s own perspective is not necessarily the perspective of others. Most of it focuses on talking about feelings, and by feelings they mean emotions, not beliefs. Thus “I feel angry” is a legitimate statement in NVC, but “I feel manipulated” isn’t, because it’s an implicit accusation.

    I suspect that statements of “I believe” are designed to express ownership of ideas that are not necessarily facts, giving room for differences of opinions. Simply stating “X” instead of “I believe X” would imply that it was a global truth when the speaker actually understands that it isn’t. Saying “I feel X” poses the opposite hazard, of conflating one’s understanding of how things are with one’s emotional state.

    • anon

      Interesting. Perhaps what you call “understanding” can be formalized as an evaluation of idiosyncratic evidence which would be hard to otherwise convey to your counterparty, while “facts” would comprise one’s true epistemic belief, which also takes counterparties’ beliefs and evidence into account.

      Using “I believe X” as the label for the former is somewhat confusing, but the system seems to be epistemically sound, and a viable approach to solving the problem of disagreement [which involves facts, i.e. epistemic beliefs, not evidence].

  • Erik

    This reminds me of a Muhammad Ali quote (possibly borrowed from elsewhere):

    “It’s the repetition of affirmations that leads to belief. And once that belief becomes a deep conviction, things begin to happen.”

    Saying that “I believe X” might better be understood as an attempt to convince oneself of X in order to produce some other (subjectively) desirable behavior.

    And for philosophical musing’s sake, how would you distinguish the content of Robin’s post from a belief statement?

  • loleconomists

    holy christ, it sure is babby’s first epistemology lesson in here.

  • Bradley D Morrow

    No matter the words we use to state x bias cannot be overcame untill we totally eliminate emmotion. And that brings us back to opinion. Which is better emotion with bias or unbisased without emotion?

    i believe we won’t all agree!

  • Power of suggestion

    I think one reason why we take any opposition to our belief as a personal attack is that we are afraid that we will change if we listen to the counter-argument carefully (even if it were to be wrong); we are afraid we might lose our sense of identity and will become whatever people would tell us.

    I would like to give a personal example: in college there was a girl who I didn’t think much about. But once, she and I were talking and some of my friends saw us together and spread the word (as a prank) that we (she and I) were dating. I vehemently denied it. But as fate would have it, people started talking so much about it, that she and I did get into a relationship at the end. And I still feel pretty edgy about the whole thing because I initially believed that I wasn’t attracted to her, and then everybody kept on suggesting it, and my brain changed itself to suit the suggestion. So, knowing that we are so susceptible to suggestion, we are afraid of anyone opposing our beliefs, because we are afraid people would sweep us away in their arguments and suggestions. In short, we are insecure about weak rational muscles.

  • “I think” seems to be more neutral. When people say “I believe” my brain tens to overdub it with the lilting drawl of a southern baptist minister, starting out on his sermon, saying: “Aaah beeleeve…”

  • JS Allen

    Saying “I believe” is just a signal that you’re willing to advocate for something and try to persuade others of it.

    It’s ironic that you’re advocating for your belief that use of “I believe” is harmful, but you present your belief as simple fact.

    A vague appeal to anecdotal evidence followed by preachy exhortation for people to adopt your personal prejudice in the name of being incrementally more rational — you sound almost exactly like Eliezer in this post.

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  • josh

    Could you add:

    “Or you could be and act like a human being, which really isn’t a bad thing.”

    To the end of this post.

    • Scott

      Biases are specific cases where acting like a human being is a bad thing.

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  • David Cords

    I agree that we should avoid substituting Statements about Group Membership from Statements about Reality. However, I don’t see sufficient evidence to make the generalization that it is better to say “I feel” instead of “I believe”. I think you may have a bias for your own linguistic style active here.
    Simply switching “I believe” to “I feel” doesn’t combat bias, it simply shifts it to another output. Eventually “I feel” will generate the same problems as “I believe,” maybe more-so. (For one example, Just look at the transition in terms from ‘Handicapped’ to ‘Disabled’ to ‘People with Disability’.) To combat the bias that we are assuming is surrounding “I believe” we should identify how it is used, what is it associated with, and how might that affect our cognition.

    A quick analysis:

    Looking at the data presented, I see three major patterns.
    From Hanson’s post:
    Type I: “Why I do something”:
    1, 3, 4, 9 & 10 (from Hansen) all seem to be justifications for behavior. For example, #3 can be recast as: “I am offering refuge to my kids because my mother did it for me.”

    Type II: Statement about personal values:
    5, 7 and 10 are statements about personal values. #5: “I value creativity and passion”

    #2 and #6 are ambiguous for me without context.They may be statements about an unconfirmed conception of reality, or they may be variations of the other two categories.

    From comments posted:
    Type III: Use as a statement of speaker’s degree-of-confidence held in a statement, typically about ‘reality’.

    Looking at these, in 2 out of 3 ways the statements are used, it is easy to see why people take such umbrage when people contest their ‘beliefs’:

    Attacking someone’s justification for their behavior is directly attacking their rationalizations for feeling good about being themselves. People don’t really want to change anything that makes them feel good.

    Likewise, attacking personal values would have a similar result. It’s a direct attack on their value as a member of any group they identified you with. Humans frequently construct social identities and align themselves using value statements; Not validating such statements is equivalent (to some people) to rejecting the person’s membership in the group.

    Type III seems to be at odds with the other groups. These would be those who make the statement as an indicator of degree-of-confidence in a particular statement. You can see how people who only have this interpretation of “I believe” would potentially conflict with people in types I and II.

    Type IV:
    Based on the “i feel” statements mentioned in another post, and personal experience, I hypothesize a fourth group, one who uses “I believe” statements to avoid discussion of personal values; that is to put forth statements without fear of losing face (or something.) e.g. “I believe in X.” ‘Why?’ “Why are you questioning my beliefs!?!”

    Now, imagine if type I and Type II were conflated for a speaker. Then all justifications would signal alignment to a group! So attempting to provide an alternate rationale is the same as saying “I don’t accept you in my social group.” Likewise, changing a rationale would be akin to leaving a group. Sound like any people you know?

    From this, I abstract that the things to avoid are confusing Statements about Reality with Statements about Group Membership; and letting yourself fall into the trap of stating things to avoid discussion. Using “I believe” shouldn’t be a problem, provided you know why you are using it and the effect it will have on the listener.

    Any counter- thoughts, analyses, opinions, beliefs? Strategies for dealing with people who conflate type I and II?

    Related Survey:
    Which type(s) do you predominantly use?
    How often do you have conflict with someone who uses an “I believe” statement?

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  • Melanie Knapp

    to believe or not to believe that is a question to ponder… when we believe in morality and in freedom we can have the two come together in an interesting dynamic of activity.

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