“The Believer’s Fallacy”

A while back, I was on an internet forum with a woman from Texas who happened to annoy me.  Apparently, I also annoyed her at least as much as she annoyed me.  I suspect it was a personality conflict, because some of the things she did that annoyed me were things that do not necessarily annoy me when others do them.

Like brag about Texas.  I’m usually significantly more bored than I am annoyed when someone brags about their home state.  But when she did it, I would throw myself for half an hour or more  into devising snarky comebacks before I’d wake up to how much time I was wasting.

Again, like when she would commit the believer’s fallacy.  My feelings usually range anywhere from concern, through empathy, to resignation when someone does that.  It’s an easy fallacy to commit, and I commit it myself now and then.  But when she did it, it was no longer an understandable mistake — by god, it was an issue!   It was easy for me to find myself thinking on and off all day about one or two instances of where she had committed the fallacy the day before.

She would say things like,  “I believe in being straightforward about who I am”; “I believe we should know ourselves”;  “I believe in helping people achieve their goals for success”; “I believe in charity”.  Yet, she would mean more by those statements than their face value.  A lot more.

Her phrase, “I believe…”, was her code for “I am…”.  So, she would say, “I believe in charity”, but she would mean, “I am charitable.”  Or, she would say, “I believe my husband should be the head of our household”, but she would mean something like, “I am my husband’s dutiful and submissive wife”.

Now, the problem is, she wasn’t always what she said she was.  Sometimes you could tell that pretty clearly; and because she annoyed me, I could not easily forget the things she would say.  Like when she said she believed in charity.  Over time, she made a number of references to her charitable acts.  So, it became clear that she was charitable alright — she gave to every person in need who could jump through the twenty-seven hoops she had set up as preconditions to her pocketbook.  Nevertheless, she was a big believer in charity, meaning she thought of herself as charitable.

Was she a hypocrite?

Well, yes: A hypocrite is someone who says one thing and does another, so she was a hypocrite.  But she was a special kind of hypocrite.  She was special because her hypocrisy seems to have arisen from a common enough mistake:  The mistake of thinking we are what we merely believe in.

I call that mistake, “the believer’s fallacy”.  If someone asks us, “Are you a charitable person?”, we do not always examine ourselves like we would anyone else.  We do not always search our memory for instances when we have given charity or declined to give charity.  Instead, we sometimes  search our memory for beliefs about ourselves and charity.  Instead of asking, “What have we done that was charitable?”, we ask, “What do we believe about charity?

Now, anyone who is a fan of logic — and who isn’t? — knows that a fallacy can be committed even though what you say is true.  Cute little children are always committing the tu quoque fallacy with each other.  Stephanie says to Richard, “You lied!”  Richard says to Stephanie, “You did too!”  That’s a logical fallacy because what Richard said doesn’t change the truth or falsity of what Stephanie said. In other words, what Richard said can be true  (Stephanie can indeed be lying) but logically irrelevant at the same time.

The believer’s fallacy is like that, too.  It’s possible to have the wrong reasons for the right conclusion.  Belief can match reality.  But it is not logically required for belief to match reality.  Therefore, it is  a fallacy to assert that one’s belief in something is sufficient grounds for one’s claim to be something.  It is a fallacy to assert that my belief in charity is sufficient grounds for my claim to be charitable.

The last thing to note about the believer’s fallacy here is that it can be committed when we say of others — not just ourselves — “They believe in x, therefore they are or do x.”   “The President believes in compassion, therefore he is a compassionate man.”

That last example suggests there might be consequences of committing the believer’s fallacy.  To mistake a president’s belief in compassion for sufficient evidence of compassion could have various consequences, depending on your relationship to him or her.

It’s been 30 years since I last knew my fallacies backwards and forwards.  I am no longer up on the topic.  But so far as I can recall, there is no recognized fallacy that has the precise form of this fallacy.  So, that might mean, I have discovered it myself.  However, that is very unlikely.  Much more likely is I just don’t know the name of the already recognized fallacy that has the form of what I call the believer’s fallacy.  And even more likely than that is the possibility that what I’ve come up with fails as a fallacy of logic altogether.   Maybe it’s just some sort of psychological fallacy.  Or maybe not even that. But of one thing we may be absolutely certain.

We may be absolutely certain that if I was sure the believer’s fallacy was a bona fide fallacy of logic, and that I had discovered it, I would propose naming it after that annoying woman.

Just kidding.

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11 thoughts on ““The Believer’s Fallacy”

  1. I’ve seen you comment on this subject before, and I am always reminded just how important it is to turn the lens back onto ourselves. It is a practice that is easy to overlook, but to do otherwise is to risk serious hypocrisy and self-righteousness, which annoy me enough in others that I wish to avoid the same myself.

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    • That’s an excellent point, Brandon. I certainly commit the fallacy from time to time. For that matter, I commit most fallacies from time to time. There just is no perfection in me. It is therefore very helpful, as you have just done, to be reminded to stay on guard when it comes to these things. Further, I don’t think it’s possible to avoid making mistakes. I think the best we can hope for is to catch and correct most of them when we do make them.

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  2. I have thought a similar thing about the naming part of your post when it comes to policies. I’ve read some weird policies before and I wonder, “Who was this meant for and what the hell did they do?” It would be nice if, in addition to the date the policy was created or updated, it listed the person’s name and there was a short story in the appendices about what they did to cause the creation of the policy.

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    • LOL! Even if they withheld the names of the people involved, it would be interesting to know what they did to prompt the policy. I think you’re right: An appendix on that subject should be standard procedure whenever announcing a new policing.

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  3. “The Believer’s Fallacy: the fallacy that occurs when a person fallaciously assumes her abstract and unpracticed beliefs endow her with those character traits both corresponding to and harmonious with those beliefs, yet her actions are demonstrably inconsistent with the same. One who engages this fallacy typically demonstrates hypocrisy, myopia, a chronic lack of self-insight, or a combination of the three. May or may not be a symptom of a mental illness, a personality disorder, or exposure to batshit crazy religious beliefs.”

    — By Paul Sunstone

    Works for me. : )

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  4. Your Stephanie/Richard example goes on all the time attempting to make two wrongs make a right (Three rights make a left?). With Russia it is called “But what about …” Anytime an article eg on The Economist points out the latest actions by the current criminal government, the pro-Russia commenters are quick to point out that someone else has committed the same sin (USA/Britain) and so why is everybody always picking on me?

    There is an old gag from Soviet times where on a phone in radio show someone asks what the minimum wage is in United States. After a very long pause the response is “They lynch Negroes there”.

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  5. Just finished Michael Shermer’s The Believing Brain. Based on years of reading his Scientific American pages and Skeptic Mag, I believe Shermer is a smart man, which means I’m a smart woman for believing in him…which set me up for the exception that proves The Believer’s Fallacy.

    I was nodding, uh-huh’ing, patting him and my own smart self on the back, approving right along until he got to his belief in Ayn Rand’s…oh, what shall we call it?…philosophy? novelistic fantasy? We sure as hell can’t call it economics, especially since we’ve seen what happened when Greenspan tried use it as such. Rand believed she was a great mind, a great novelist, the non plus ultra of rationality. I believe she was a deluded, malignant narcissist.

    It was the strangest blip. Right there in a terrifically logical book designed to make people who agree with him feel logical, rational, and smart, Shermer revealed that he’s just as human, just as prone to believing that he is what he says he believes in, just as capable of conveniently ignoring whole segments of fact and swallowing the Believer’s Fallacy, as the rest of us.

    I believe I’m confused.

    p.s. My favorite little kid comeback: My oreo cookie is just like yours and yours isn’t.

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    • Hi Nance! Thank you for a good comment!

      I think you’re right that, as a philosopher, Rand was not in the same class as, say, Aristotle, Nietzsche, and Wittgenstein. Her ideology was largely reactionary, and — as you point out — unworkable.

      And I agree with you that many people do “believe in” Rand in the sense they think their belief in Rand makes them something that Rand would consider noble.

      If so, those would be cases of the believer’s fallacy.

      .

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  6. Turning the lens inwards I find it more instructive to look to my longings than my consciously held beliefs.
    I imagine that compared to my beliefs my longings broadcast more about me to the wider world – but I suppose that’s for the wider woirld 😀

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