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Welcome to the nexus of ethics, psychology, morality, technology, health care, and philosophy

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

People judge others to have more control over beliefs than they themselves do.

Cusimano, C., & Goodwin, G. (2020, April 3).


People attribute considerable control to others over what those individuals believe. However, no work to date has investigated how people judge their own belief control, nor whether such judgments diverge from their judgments of others. We addressed this gap in seven studies and found that people judge others to be more able to voluntarily change what they believe than they themselves are. This occurs when people judge others who disagree with them (Study 1) as well as others agree with them (Studies 2-5, 7), and it occurs when people judge strangers (Studies 1-2, 4-5) as well as close others (Studies 3, 7). It appears not to be explained by impression management or self-enhancement motives (Study 3). Rather, there is a discrepancy between the evidentiary constraints on belief change that people access via introspection, and their default assumptions about the ease of voluntary belief revision. That is, people spontaneously tend to think about the evidence that supports their beliefs, which leads them to judge their beliefs as outside their control. But they apparently fail to generalize this feeling of constraint to others, and similarly fail to incorporate it into their generic model of beliefs (Studies 4-7). We discuss the implications of our findings for theories of ideology-based conflict, actor-observer biases, naïve realism, and on-going debates regarding people’s actual capacity to voluntarily change what they believe.


The  present  paper  uncovers  an  important  discrepancy in  how  people  think  about  their  own  and  others’  beliefs; namely, that people judge that others have a greater capacity to voluntarily change their beliefs than they, themselves do.  Put succinctly, when someone says, “You can choose to believe in God, or you can choose not to believe in God,” they may often mean that you can choose but they cannot.  We have argued that this discrepancy derives from two distinct ways people reason about belief control: either by consulting their default theory of belief, or by introspecting and reporting what they feel when they consider voluntarily changing a belief. When people apply their default theory of belief, they judge  that  they  and  others  have  considerable  control  over what they believe. But, when people consider the possibility of trying to change a particular belief, they tend to report that they have less control. Because people do not have access to the experiences of others, they rely on their generic theory of beliefs when judging others’ control. Discrepant attributions of control for self and other emerge as a result.  This may in turn have important downstream effects on people’s behavior during disagreements. More work is needed to explore these downstream effects, as well as to understand how much control people actually have over what they believe.  Predictably,we find the results from these studies compelling, but admit that readers may believe whatever they please.

The research is here.