Beliefs @F-L-O-W

On Beliefs, Belief Structures, & Patterns

Beliefs, Attitudes, and Human Affairs
by Daryl J. Bem

In 1970, Darryl Bem wrote a book called, Beliefs, Attitudes and Human Affairs. His book is as important for its discussion of why studying the source of our beliefs and attitudes is important, as it is for his hypotheses on how they are formed.

Bem points out that how we believe what we believe can be difficult to extract from our thinking.  Holding a belief means that you perceive a relationship between two things or between something and its characteristics. 

Bem talks about our “primitive beliefs,” and he says that every belief we have can ultimately be dissected to the point where the information will rest on “a basic belief in the credibility of one’s own sensory experience or upon a basic belief in the credibility of some external authority.”

To restate with a simplified example:
Either I feel the fire as hot and I believe it, or my mommy told me the fire was hot and I believed it. Obviously, one can reinforce the other.

To elaborate more fully, Bem sees beliefs this way:
There are “zero-order beliefs”.  Included in this group are all the things we learn as tiny children as we react with our environment; they are all the things that are validated by our experiences. We hold these most firmly because they are supported by our direct sensory experiences.

There are “first-order beliefs”. These are formed as conclusions to our logical thinking processes that stem from our direct sensory experiences.

In his example, the logic works like this:

Here is an example of a zero-order belief based upon personal experience:

1st Premise My senses tell me that oranges feel round Zero-order belief
2nd Premise My senses tell me true Zero-order belief
3rd Premise Therefore, oranges are round. First-order belief

Or, you can have a zero-order belief based upon an external authority:

1st Premise Mommy says doggies are dangerous Zero-order belief
2nd Premise Mommy says only true things Zero-order belief
3rd Premise Therefore, doggies are bad First-order belief

“Most religious and quasi-religious beliefs are first-order beliefs based upon an unquestioned zero-order faith in some internal or external source of knowledge." (Bem, p.7)

Then, there are higher-order beliefs with vertical structures which are similar to zero-order beliefs, except that they are derived by inductive reasoning based on our experiences:

1st Premise My two friends got cancer Zero-order belief
2nd Premise They both died soon after diagnosis Zero-order belief
3rd Premise Therefore, cancer causes death Higher-order belief

If a higher-order belief was held together only by its vertical structures, it could easily be collapsed, but they are also held together by horizontal structures, which are essentially multiple, reinforcing sets of higher-order beliefs. Higher-order beliefs in a horizontal structure looks like this:

Smoking causes cancer Smokers drink more heavily than non-smokers Statistics show smokers die younger than non-smokers
Cancer can cause death Heavy drinking can lead to early death Evaluative belief
Therefore, smokers die younger Therefore, black economic power is desirable. Attitudinal statement

What part do these beliefs have in our values? Bem indicates it’s not easy to say.

To know whether a positive atittude or an evaluative belief is also a value for a particular individual, one must know the functional role it plays in his total belief system [my italics]. One man’s higher-order attitude can be another man’s value. Money is a good example; it is a means to other values for most individuals, but an end in itself for some. (Bem, p. 16)

In addition, there is reason to believe according to Bem’s analysis of the work of Maccoby and Fromm that all of those belief constructs are affected by whether you have an attraction to love of life or whether yours is an attraction to the dead or mechanical (the work of ) which hypothesis is essentially this:

A person with intense love of life is attracted to that which is alive, which grows, which is free and unpredictable. he has an aversion to violence and all that destroys life. thus he dislikes sterile and rigid order. He rejects being mechanized, becoming a lifeless part of 7 machine-like organization. He enjoys life in all its manifestations in contrast to mere excitement or thrills. He believes in molding and influencing by love, reason and example rather than by force.

At the other pole, there are individuals attracted to that which is rigidly ordered, mechanical and un-alive. These people do not like anything free and uncontrolled. They feel that people must be regulated within well-oiled machines. The extreme are those who are attracted to what is dead (Maccoby, 1968, p. 2, quoted in Bem, 1970, p.20)

So, thus far, we might conclude that to the extent a person’s zero-order and first-order beliefs have been conditioned in a life-loving environment, the person will have values that affirm love and reason and, presumably, lack of prejudice. And conversely, to the extent that they are not, you will produce people who have values that affirm authoritarian and dogmatic choices which will tend toward prejudice. Obviously, this can be extrapolated to make many statements about how and why a person would or would not be able to maintain conviction in whatever set of values might be chosen.

How then, do we apply this concept of beliefs and attitudes to a non-tangible interaction like forgiveness? Let’s presume, since there isn’t any research available to demonstrate otherwise, that forgiveness is a value that is acquired as an evaluative higher-order belief. In other words, the thought process would look somewhat like this:

1st Premise: I accidentally let go of my resentment and found I felt better (or I was backed into a corner by my own misery and the only way I could relieve it was to let go of my resentment ) Zero-order belief
2nd Premise: Perhaps it is best to let go of resentments Evaluative belief
3rd Premise: Forgiveness seems to bring a sense of peace First-order belief
4th Premise: A sense of inner peace is desirable Evaluative belief
5th Premise: Therefore, forgiveness is desirable Attitudinal statement

It works without modification in spite of the absence of a 2nd party; in spite of when the zero-order belief comes into existence. 

So, it may be reasonable to make the statement that a held value of Forgiveness begins as a zero-order belief, even though it is may not have been learned in childhood, and it qualifies as such because its benefit is supported by our direct sensor experience as desirable.

The experience of resentment is such that it is highly unlikely that one could try forgiving simply because it was suggested by someone else, regardless of how trusted.  And even if one were to be convinced by an external authority that it should be tried, the zero-order belief would not be established until it was actually experienced.

The fact that the environment being interacted with is internal and exclusive of the presence of others does not mar the applicability of Bem’s hypothesis to this internal state.

Links that relate to Bem’s work:
Daryl Bem’s Website
Journals that publish theory
and research articles about


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