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The Formation of Belief


Explanations > Beliefs > The Formation of Belief

Self-generated belief | Externally-generated belief | So what?


Beliefs can come from two sources: our own experience and reflections, or as a blind acceptance of what other people tell us. These are very different methods and are often based on very different preferences and attitudes to the world and people around us.

Self-generated belief

Self-generated beliefs are those we create ourselves. People who generally prefer to self-generate are often open, confident and curious. They seek truth over comfort and social acceptance. They may be distrusting of experts and other authorities. They prefer argument and debate to quick and blind acceptance. They are willing to live with uncertainty and ambiguity until their belief is formed.


'Experience is a hard master, but a fool will have no other.' It has a ring of truth about it, but also is the ultimate method we have of finding the truth.

Trying things for ourselves is how we start out as children and we continue to use this approach to some degree through our lives. The extent to which we continue to seek truth through experience depends on a range of factors, including parental guidance and the level and style of education we received.

Experience is useful for continuous improvement of the beliefs and models we use. For example a person may be bluntly honest at home, but finds that speaking your mind is not effective in particular work settings.


Experience may come from thing that happen to us. It may also be deliberately sought, in particular when we try out various experiments.

In a scientific sense, truth comes from carefully designed experiments which prove what is true and what is not. Yet 'proven' truths are constantly being challenged and re-examined. We may also do informal experiments in our daily lives to test and improve our beliefs.

A key benefit of thoughtful experimental  is in sharpening beliefs, showing where they work and do not work. The rules that we create in sound research are hence more likely to be true and worth believing.


A variation on external experimentation is internal reflection and thought. It is a lot easier and can often be done much quicker. It can be done in most places, although it is best done when there are less external distractions.

Reflection includes general musing about things and building internal mental models which help to explain the external world.

In some ways reflection is opposite to experience in that it is internal rather than external. It can also be complementary as you either reflect after an experience or seek experiences after internal reflection.


A key part of self-created beliefs is when we take the results of experience and experiment, and (often through reflection) generalize this to assume that what we have discovered in one context is equally applicable elsewhere. For example if a child finds that nagging parents is successful, they may create a generalized belief that nagging is a useful and often necessary way of getting what they want with other people.

The problem with generalization from experience is that what is true in one situation is often not true in others. Formal experimentation can help to improve the quality of generalization yet we are still constrained by the time we have.

Externally generated belief

Done well, experience and experiment means trying things out in practice, observing things and generally getting a broad range of evidence before committing to a belief. Unfortunately we only have time try a limited number of things (and what we do try out can say a lot about us).

The alternative to finding things out for oneself is to take on board things that others have found out. People who generally prefer to accept beliefs from others typically have a greater need for a sense of control. They tend to seek certainty and rapid closure, avoiding the uncertainty of exploration. They also are likely to have a greater tendency to trust others and to seek trustworthiness, although perhaps only in specific areas.


Experts are people who have proven themselves to have knowledge in particular areas. They may have qualifications or demonstrable and skills. They are often professionals who are paid for their expertise. When they tell you something, you have good reason to believe it.

Experts can be met in person or they may have written books or other media you can access. However you access their knowledge or skill, you trust them because you believe they are expert.

People who seek experts are relatively pragmatic. They trust, but not necessarily blindly. They are looking for someone to help in a specific area.


The difference between an expert and an authority is that you believe the authority because of their position or charismatic powers, and not because of any reasonable proof that they know well what they are talking about.

Managers, priests, and parents all offer beliefs based on their position rather than their expertise. In fact we all do it when we get into arguments where we tell rather than seeking to persuade.

People who believe authorities are followers. They believe in the sanctity of position or may be gullible and easy to persuade. They are likely to have a strong need for belonging and social approval. They may single out specific people, who they will believe blindly. Cult leaders seek to place themselves in this position.


A 'canon' is an unchallenged set of 'truths' as set out in literature from religious texts to scientific papers. It is the set of 'truths' that most people working in the given area believe and accept without challenge. All work of discovery and discussion starts from these foundations.

To challenge a canon is to put yourself in the firing line, particularly from those who have founded their life's work on unquestioning acceptance of the canon. Yet this is how scientific breakthroughs occur. It also helps to explain why general acceptance and the creation of a new canon often takes a whole generation to achieve.

So what?

When you are seeking to change beliefs, find out where the other person gets their beliefs from. If they tend towards self-generated belief then give them experiences or rational arguments. If they are more external, then pose as an expert or authority, or bring in someone who can fulfil the appropriate role.

See also

Theories about belief, Preferences, Social Research, Fowler's Faith Stage Theory


Kuhn, T.S. (1970). The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Chicago: University of Chicago Press

Rokeach, M. (1960). Open and Closed Minds, New York: Basic Books


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