Why do people believe what they believe?
I often get questions about how to change the culture of an organisation.
There’s a lot to it, but having the right basic understanding of the problem is useful, and I’m going to talk about one aspect of that here. Why do people believe what they believe?
Don’t worry, this won’t be a deep philosophical discussion; just a few ideas that anyone can grasp and hopefully use to good effect.
I’m indebted to Mary Poppendieck for the following insight: the root cause of any problem comes down to a belief that is wrong. Change that belief and the problem might be fixed; fail to change the belief and any fix you attempt will eventually fail.
Organisational Culture is, fundamentally, a set of principles; beliefs about how the world works that an organisation uses to base all its decisions on how to run the business. Ultimately, if you want to change the way a business is run, you need to change those beliefs.
And this is where it becomes important to understand why people believe what they believe.
Instead of delving into the considerable detail of individual beliefs, let us take a step back. We believe things – basically – for one of four reasons, which I call the Four Truths. It’s a model, and like all models, it isn’t necessarily either a good description of reality, or the best model that could be used. But it is useful.
Now, don’t get hung up on the names I use – if they set off your pet peeves, then choose other names. I call them “Mathematical”, “Scientific”, “Political” and “Religious” truths.
Characterisation of the Four Truths
Mathematical Truth is the absolute truth at one end of the spectrum. It is constructed from axioms; things that are true by definition; and from such things as theorems that allow us to derive more ‘truth’ from the truth we already have. This is excellent – we can be absolutely sure of mathematical truth. What we can’t be sure of is whether it ever accurately describes the real world. If you’re a physicist, then you’re probably in luck. If you’re a biologist, not so much.
Scientific Truth is typically described with reference to Karl Popper and the concept of falsifiability. To be regarded as “scientific fact”, an assertion must be falsifiable, and in theory there should be a way to show it is false. It must also have resisted, so far, all our best attempts to prove it is false. Note that this is at odds with the layman’s idea of science, where we should try to prove things as true!
Political Truth is characterised by things we have been persuaded are true. The reasoning used to persuade might be excellent or it might be highly suspect. The layman accepts most “scientific truth” as “political truth”. They don’t understand the reasoning, but are convinced that someone does, and are prepared to take it on trust. Unfortunately, the same mechanism can be used to propagate “fake news”.
Religious Truth is the absolute truth at the other end of the spectrum. It is the only form of truth available to young children below ‘the age of reason’, though that may be a considerably younger age than the traditional seven years old. Beliefs that take hold at this young age can be very hard to root out, and they colour the whole of the rest of the way an individual has of looking at the world. There isn’t really any ‘reason’ underpinning religious truth; people believe it because they do.
Dealing with the Truth Types
So, let’s say I make an assertion: throws of dice are predictable and I can demonstrate it. That should get quite a few people interested. Then I make a specific prediction, that if I throw a standard six-sided dice 20 times, the total of throws will be around 70 points.
The mathematical truth person gets a gleam in his eyes and proposes betting on the outcome, and – through superior knowledge of probability – theory manages to separate me from a fair proportion of my wages.
The scientific truth person thinks of a way to prove me wrong, and eventually hits a combination of throws that, by random chance, falls outside the range we agreed as “reasonably close to 70”. But in doing so, he’s discovered that I was right more often than he expected; that there is some degree of truth to the assertion.
The political truth person is looking to be persuaded. There are several ways we can do this. One of the more effective methods is having the scientific and mathematical thinkers – whom he respects – agree that the assertion is actually pretty close to being true.
The religious truth person will not admit that it is possible to predict the dice and there must be some trick to it that we’re perpetrating.
Knowing why people believe what they do gives us many insights toward changing a culture. If the belief is amenable to scientific analysis, identify and start with the scientific thinkers. It’s rare that the belief will be amenable to mathematical proof, so normally we lump the mathematical thinkers along with the scientific thinkers.
Meanwhile, consider what approaches might be effective with your political thinkers. Choose the ones most likely to be amenable to the reasoning while the scientists are getting their experimental results sorted out. If enough people convert to the new belief, the rest of the political thinkers are likely to follow.
For the religious thinkers, accept that few – if any – will change their beliefs. But provided they act as if they had, that’s a fair outcome. Take care, however; take great care. There’s nothing as dangerous as a religious thinker whose foundations of belief are under threat. The entire structure of the way they interact with the world is under threat, and without the history of reasoned thinking, they will be lost without it. To them that is a very frightening prospect, and is to be resisted with force if necessary. Far better and safer to ask them to act in new ways, rather than to believe in new things.
In most contexts, the majority of people will use political truth for almost everything. However, understand the differences. If you were to assume that the same approach will work for everybody, this would not lead to the most effective way of working. Now you have an idea why this might be happening, and a handle to do something about it.
This has been a somewhat superficial and tongue-in-cheek description of the ideas. Nevertheless, they can be useful and help reduce the complexity of the job of shifting an organisation’s culture, or even to understand and improve communication with the people you work alongside day-to-day.