People don't have beliefs any more than they have goals: Beliefs As Body Language

by Bound_up 2y25th Jul 201742 comments


Many people, anyway.


There is a common mistake in modeling humans, to think that they have actual goals, and that they deduce their actions from those goals. First there is a goal, then there is an action which is born from the goal. This is wrong.

More accurately, humans have a series of adaptations they execute. A series of behaviors which, under certain circumstances, kinda-sorta-maybe aim at the same-ish thing (like inclusive genetic fitness), but which will be executed regardless of whether or not they actually hit that thing.

Actions are not deduced from goals. The closest thing we have to "goals" are inferred from a messy conglomerate of actions, and are only an approximation of the reality that is there: just a group of behaviors.


I've come to see beliefs as very much the same way. Maybe some of us have real beliefs, real models. Some of us may in fact choose our statements about the world by deducing them from a foundational set of beliefs.

The mistake is repeated when we model most humans as having actual beliefs (nerds might be an exception). To suppose that their statements about reality, their propositions about the world, or their answers to questions are deduced from some foundational belief. First there is a belief, then there is a report on that belief, provided if anyone inquires about the belief they're carrying around. This is wrong.

More accurately, humans have a set of social moves/responses that they execute. Some of those moves APPEAR (to the naive nerd such as I) to be statements about how and what reality is. Each of these "statements" was probably vetted and accepted individually, without any consideration for the utterly foreign notion that the moves should be consistent or avoid contradiction. This sounds as tiresome to them as suggesting that their body language, or dance moves should be "consistent," for to them, the body language, dance moves, and "statements about reality" all belong to the same group of social moves, and thinking a social move is "consistent" is like thinking a certain posture/gesture is consistent or a color is tasty.

And missing the point like a nerd and taking things "literally" is exactly the kind of thing that reveals low social acuity.

Statements about individual beliefs are not deduced from a model of the world, just like actions are not deduced from goals. You can choose to interpret "I think we should help poor people" as a statement about the morality of helping poor people, if you want to miss the whole point, of course. We can suppose that "XYZ would be a good president" is a report on their model of someone's ability to fulfill a set of criteria. And if we interpret all their statement as though they were actual, REAL beliefs, we might be able to piece them together into something sort of like a model of the world.

All of which is pointless, missing the point, and counter-productive. Their statements don't add up to a model like ours might, anymore than our behaviors really add up to a goal. The "model" that comes out of aggregating their social learned behaviors will likely be inconsistent, but if you think that'll matter to them, you've fundamentally misunderstood what they're doing. You're trying to find their beliefs, but they don't HAVE any. There IS nothing more. It's just a set of cached responses. (Though you might find, if you interpret their propositions about reality as signals about tribal affiliation and personality traits, that they're quite consistent).

"What do you think about X" is re-interpreted and answered as though you had said "What do good, high-status groups (that you can plausibly be a part of) think about X?"

"I disagree" doesn't mean they think your model is wrong; they probably don't realize you have a model. Just as you interpret their social moves as propositional statements and misunderstand, so they interpret your propositional statements as social moves and misunderstand. If you ask how their model differs from yours, it'll be interpreted as a generic challenge to their tribe/status, and they'll respond like they do to such challenges. You might be confused by their hostility, or by how they change the subject. You think you're talking about X and they've switched to Y. While they'll think you've challenged them, and respond with a similar challenge, the "content" of the sentences need not be considered; the important thing is to parry the social attack and maybe counter-attack. Both perspectives make internal sense.

As far as they're concerned, the entire meaning of your statement was basically equivalent to a snarl, so they snarled back. Beliefs As Body Language.

Despite the obvious exceptions and caveats, this has been extremely useful for me in understanding less nerdy people. I try not to take what to them are just the verbal equivalent of gestures/postures or dance moves, and interpret them as propositional statements about the nature of reality (even though they REALLY sound like they're making propositional statements about the nature of reality), because that misunderstands what they're actually trying to communicate. The content of their sentences is not the point. There is no content. (None about reality, that is. All content is social). They do not HAVE beliefs. There's nothing to report on.