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How do people form beliefs? A view from Psychology

Film Interview: How do people form beliefs? - Richard Tunney (Psychology)
Welcome back to our conversations about how different disciplines relate to the study of ideology and propaganda in everyday life. I’m here today with Richard Tunney from Psychology to discuss how his discipline explores these questions. Welcome, Richard. Thank you. You work on what motivates people’s behaviours towards other people. Could you talk us through how psychologists go about explaining such behaviours? Well, psychologists explain the way that we behave towards, and indeed the way that we think about other people, in terms of attitudes and lower-level motivations. So attitudes are a coherent set of affective reactions towards external psychological objects. Those might be other people or they might be other groups. And indeed, they might be other belief systems.
Those attitudes in a traditional sense tend to derive from experience with those psychological objects. For example, people may not like dentists because they’ve experienced dentists and concluded that dentists are likely to hurt them. Similarly, we receive knowledge about other groups in terms of media and propaganda. So an unbalanced media may very well demonise other groups, which potentially could be internalised within an individual from an early age, or indeed may form part of the social norm that any one individual has to to the outside world at least appear to conform. Those attitudes, though, tend to be quite poorly predictive of how we behave to other groups.
So although somebody might have an attitude towards another group, the probability that they are going to behave or act towards that group in a way that one might think they should given the attitude is actually quite unlikely. So there are many more people with unsavoury beliefs, and indeed positive beliefs, within a society, but the number of people who actually act on those beliefs or those attitudes is relatively quite small. My own interest is in the more dispositional or biological motives towards our behaviour towards other people. So for example, I have an interest in how we distribute resources among other people to whom we’re more or less related.
So in a sense, altruism is a motive for behaviour that’s actually quite poorly understood. And it’s poorly understood because it presents as a paradox in neo-Darwinism. To be successful, we should really all be selfish towards other people and generally unpleasant. And the truth of the matter is that actually we’re not. We really tend to be quite nice to other people. Now, the interesting questions arise when we ask, well, who is it that we’re nice to and who is it that we’re not nice to? So if you’ve got a hypothesis for explaining altruism, say, how would you go about testing whether that’s actually helpful or correct?
Well, my own research has involved asking people to impose pain upon themselves or to distribute resources or, indeed, make decisions among people who are more or less distantly related to them. So that might be related in terms of the proportion of genes that one might share with another person, or indeed their psychological distance. And we can measure that in any number of ways. So for example in terms of altruism, I conducted a study a few years ago in which participants were asked to impose a cost upon themselves which results in a certain amount of pain, and that pain was transformed into a financial reward for another person.
And essentially what we demonstrated was that people are more willing to impose a greater degree of pain upon themselves when the recipient of the financial reward was more closely related to them than to another person. And indeed, what we find who was that people are unwilling to impose much pain upon themselves for somebody who they are completely unrelated. The caveat, that, is that if that unrelated person is a friend, in those circumstances friends are treated much like a full sibling with whom we have a 50% genetic relationship. Now, that becomes interesting when we start to think about why it might be that we treat our close relatives in a manner differently from distant relatives or, indeed, strangers.
And it seems to be that the answer is that we become much more irrational when we make decisions for ourselves or for people with whom we’re closely related, compared to strangers– for whom our decisions become more rational, but indeed, they’re cold, hard appraisals of the utility of the decision. And we think that that’s because we’re essentially more likely to feel another person’s pain or emotional response to an outcome the more close we are to them in terms of psychological distance or relationship. That’s very interesting. Thank you very much.
We are going to discuss with learners this week precisely this correlation that Richard has just outlined for us– the way in which we define our “in group,” if you like– who we think of as our friends and who we think of as outsiders– affects our political decision-making.

Richard Tunney was an Associate Professor in Psychology at the University of Nottingham. Since 2018 he has been a Professor in the School of Life & Health Sciences at Aston University.

In this conversation with Maiken, Richard explains that experimental psychologists use laboratory experiments to show that people act more ‘rationally’, i.e. in accordance with their political principles or beliefs, when they are making decisions affecting people they do not know – but that decisions we make affecting our own lives or those close to us (family, friends or members of a closely-knit community) are guided by more intuitive, ‘irrational’ motives.

Do you accept this distinction? And is Richard right in claiming that motives born out of identification and empathy are not political – or are they just a form of politics that we have internalised so deeply that we no longer recognise it as political?

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Propaganda and Ideology in Everyday Life

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