Re: Are Beliefs Like Clothes?

Robin Hanson (
Mon, 14 Jul 1997 10:18:28 -0700 (PDT)

Lee Daniel Crocker writes:
>Although I think you ignore what to me seems like an equally likely--
>and more cynical--posibility: that people associtate with belief-
>based social groups specifically to /hide/ their true beliefs. That
>people may be active Democrats, for example, to make people think they
>care about the less fortunate without having to actually do any of the
>hard work of genuinely caring.

Sure. In any signaling process, a variety of types of people are
pooled together with each possible signal. The signal reciever can at
best only respond to a signaler based on some average type of senders
of such signals. So the type of an individual who differs from that
average is not fully revealed. See standard signaling game lit.

Hagbard Celine writes:
>In much the same way, to be "clothed" in a belief system connotes a
>type of external showmanship that may indeed be a way to cozy up to a
>certain group of people, or even win a vote or two.

Responding to a post like yours with a quick comment like this can
also be a way to cozy up to the poster. Of course it helps to say
something like "Oh yes I agree", even if you wouldn't otherwise want
to believe something that strong. :-)

Sarah Marr writes:
>Robin, I can't help think your analysis is wrong to omit some analysis of
>communication and interaction in its discussion of belief (and, indeed, of
>clothes.) Without the communication of your belief to another through some
>form of interaction, vocal or otherwise, it does not serve a social
>purpose. Moreover, since this interaction is a choice, it is a
>manifestation of the functionality of the belief system, within your model.
>The dichotomy between functional and social roles of belief is therefore
>blurred: one function of belief is social differentiation.

I agree that the social role of beliefs is also in a sense
"functional", which is why I put this word in quotes in my first
usage. Perhaps it would have been better to say "social" vs. "non-social"?

>>Beliefs about small military missions or small engineering
>>projects come to mind. ...
>That assumes that the social role is less important than the functional
>role merely because of the size of the 'society' involved. ...
>Perhaps the key here is your phrase 'with little social monitoring':

I guess I meant "small" not just in terms of total number of people
involved, but also in terms of its relative importance in your social
life. But I hadn't thought it through very well, I agree.

>If your implication is that the wearing of bikinis would allow the
>people of the Artic to fulfil a further social role, then I think it
>is based on very Claifornia-centric cultural beliefs: attraction is a
>very culturally-relative thing, and I'm sure the people of the Artic
>have there own 'bikini-substitute'.

I must be showing my Califonia bias, but I can't help but believe that
Arctic bikini-substitues just aren't as good.

>Consciously it is very easy to say one thing and believe another; in ones
>everyday actions and interactions it may be more difficult. But does that
>mean that the functional and social roles of beliefs conflict? I don't see
>why that should follow. As I argue above, the social role of belief is one
>of its non-reflexive functions. Furthermore, whilst belief may drive social
>interaction, so may social interaction drive belief; Saul becomes Paul on
>the road to Damascus. If one has a belief and acts upon it, where is the
>conflict? If one wishes to act in a certain way but is prevented from doing
>so by ones own belief system then one has a choice to make between amending
>ones belief system or not acting in that way. But that is a choice to be
>made, and, more likely than not, is one which will be made within the
>context of the pre-existing belief system: belief system therefore informs
>social action, and vice-versa. There is a dialogue between the two, not a

I'm afraid you've completely lost me here. I was making an analogy to
clothes, where one might have to trade off functionality, such as
tennis shoes might provide, with social roles such as fashion, such as
high heels might provide. There can be similar tradeoffs in choosing beliefs.

>>espcially the academically-neglected social role of beliefs.
>This is an area in which that are huge amounts of anthropological
>literature available. Indeed, given the nature of ethnographic study, one
>is almost forced to construct any paper on the basis of social role.

I was referring primarily to the academic disciplines I am most
familiar with: philosophy, economics, and political science. I am
aware of some anthro/ethno stuff, and want to read more. But what
I've seen of that literature seems to suffer rather weak and poorly
considered analysis of the nature of beliefs. The usual story really:
theorists neglect data and empiricists neglect theory.

Robin D. Hanson