Beliefs are generally defined as convictions that things held in the mind are true. If individuals think particular tenets are likely to be true, they are said to believe them. If individuals think particular tenets are unlikely to be true, they are said to disbelieve them. In their most basic form, beliefs are nonevaluative. For example, if one believes the sky is blue, that belief could either be positively evaluated (if the individual likes the color blue and thinks the sky would look worse in red), or that belief could be negatively evaluated (if the individual dislikes the color blue and thinks a red sky would be nicer). As such, there is a fine distinction between attitudes and beliefs. Often, beliefs will, at least partially, form the basis or foundation of attitudes.
Beliefs can also form the basis of behavior. An example of this is found in health psychology via the health belief model. In this model, health behavior is predicted by several types of beliefs: (a) beliefs about all of the possible consequences of engaging in or failing to engage in a particular health behavior, (b) beliefs about personal vulnerability (i.e., how likely is the occurrence of these outcomes for oneself), (c) beliefs about the likelihood that a behavioral change would either stop negative outcomes from occurring or would facilitate positive outcomes, and (d) beliefs about whether the necessary behaviors can be enacted. According to this model, behavior change occurs when individuals believe that a particular action leads to negative, likely consequences that could be personally stopped. This model has successfully predicted smoking cessation, skin cancer preventative behaviors, tooth flossing, breast self-examination, safer sexual behavior, and eating a balanced diet.
Beliefs are important foundations of attitudes and behavior, but they can be extremely difficult to change. Often, people will vehemently maintain their beliefs even in light of disconfirming evidence. This phenomenon is known as belief perseverance. Belief perseverance typically occurs because people base their beliefs on information that they find logical, compelling, or attractive in some way. Therefore, even when beliefs are seemingly disconfirmed by new evidence, the foundation for what the person believes may still exist. At times, the belief will still be maintained because of the remaining support of the explanation behind it.
Understanding how beliefs form and how they underlie subsequent attitudes and behaviors is important because it can aid understanding of social phenomena like prejudice and discrimination, helping and aggressive behaviors, impression formation, obedience to authority, interpersonal attraction, and group decision making. In general, beliefs are the most basic type of social knowledge.
- Anderson, C. A., Lepper, M. R., & Ross, L. (1980). Perseverance of social theories: The role of explanation in the persistence of discredited information. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 39, 1037-1049.
- Rosenstock, I. M. (1990). The health belief model: Explaining health behavior through expectancies. In K. Glanz, F. M. Lewis, & B. K. Rimer (Eds.), Health behavior and health education (pp. 39-62). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.