Alief Is When You Act in Opposition to Your True Beliefs

People do all sorts of irrational things without realizing it: We yell at the TV screen even though the second baseman can't hear us. We cower on high glass walkways even though we know we're not in danger. Most of us probably wouldn't drink from a bedpan even if we knew it was sterilized. These reactions are all examples of a little-known principle called alief: a reaction that contradicts a belief.

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Real-World Examples

Alief happens in all sorts of ways. Most familiar may be on the big screen: that feeling of dread at the climax of a movie you've seen a million times or the quivering lip you get when a fictional character dies. You know it's not real, but your emotions don't care. The same goes for seemingly risky situations, like looking over the side of a cliff. There's hardly any danger, but you might still feel your stomach churn. You might also see alief in superstitious behavior. You know that nothing really happens when you knock on wood, but doing it makes you feel better, so you do it anyway.

Most of the time, alief is harmless, or even pleasurable. As psychologist Paul Bloom writes, "The point of alief is to capture the fact that our minds are partially indifferent to the contrast between events that we believe to be real versus those that seem to be real, or that are imagined to be real. This extends naturally to the pleasures of the imagination."

When Alief Turns Sinister

Sometimes, however, the knee-jerk reaction of alief works against us. Most insidious is in cases of racial prejudice, when a person who may even be an avowed anti-racist inadvertently behaves in racist ways. In the paper that first proposed the idea of alief, Tamar Szabó Gendler summarized the research into how racism pervades society, often without our conscious knowledge: White people primed with images of black faces tend to be more quick to judge an ambiguous image as a gun, identical résumés bearing stereotypically black names are less likely to get interviews than those bearing stereotypically white names, and brain scans of both black and white Americans show more activity in the threat-centric amygdala when they're shown images of people of a different race.

Luckily, there's a way to fight this tendency. One study found that people asked to press a "NO" button every time they saw a stereotypical image and "YES" when they saw an image that broke the stereotype became much faster at negating stereotypes. Another study found that people who were asked to picture a non-stereotypical person in their mind later "produced substantially weaker automatic stereotypes." That means that seeking examples of people who don't fit bigoted stereotypes, on the individual level, and championing media and companies that put people in non-stereotypical roles, on the societal level, may have a big impact in the fight against the darker side of alief.

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For more on irrational behavior, check out "Mistakes Were Made (but Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts" by Carol Tavris. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Ashley Hamer February 17, 2017

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