Why We Hold On to Certain Beliefs and Reject Others
6 min read

During the 2004 US presidential election, Drew Westen wired up people to MRIs while they were processing information about George Bush or John Kerry. 

The participants—half Republicans and half Democrats—were exposed to contradictory statements from the candidates.  

Here’s how Westen summarized the findings:  

“When participants were confronted with dissonant information about their preferred candidate, the reasoning areas of the brain shut down. When consonants were restored, the emotional circuits of the brain lit up happily.”  

This study shows that we are less rational than we might think. 

To preserve our cherished beliefs, we shut our minds to evidence. 

When it comes to people’s beliefs, it’s remarkable that the Quran doesn’t use terms related to reason.  

Not only does it link the different beliefs to emotions, but it also highlights the role of group influence. 

Abraham and His People  

After smashing all the idols except one, Abraham (as) was brought to trial. 

His people asked: 

“Was it you, Abraham, who did this to our gods?
He said: No, it was done by the biggest of them—this one. Ask them if they can talk.
So they came back to their senses, saying to one another: You yourselves are truly the wrongdoers!
Then they quickly regressed to their original mindset arguing: You know very well these gods cannot speak.”
[Quran 21:63-65] 

Allah contrasts their Internal conversation with the external response. 

Even though they realized they were wrong, they didn’t behave accordingly. 

Instead of changing behavior, they attempted to justify it. 

When reason is no longer a criterion, there are no other ways to win an argument. 

The last resort is violence: 

They concluded, “Burn him up to avenge your gods if you must act.” [Quran 21:68] 

Cognitive Dissonance Theory


The alternative for Abraham’s people was the change their central belief.  

Why did they not do it? 

This is what cognitive dissonance is about.

Any new information that conflicts with our current beliefs creates a mental discomfort. 

We have a positive self-image to preserve.

We don’t like to discover we have behaved in an irrational, immoral, or stupid way. 

So we engage in actions that help us minimize the feeling of discomfort. 

The more a belief is central to our identity, the more pain the new information will generate. 

As changing a central belief is hard, we resort to self-justifications. 

The Semmelweis reflex is another good example of cognitive dissonance. 

In 1847, the physician Ignaz Semmelweis found a way to reduce the childbed fever mortality rate by ten-fold. 

All what the doctors needed to do is hand-washing with a chlorine solution before moving from one patient to another. 

But despite the empirical evidence he showed, his fellow doctors rejected his suggestion. 

Without critical analysis, doctors rejected the evidence that contradicted their established beliefs. 

The Psychology of Disbelief  

The theory describes a human behavioral tendency. The Quran goes to the root of it. 

Let’s take a look at what Ibrahim said to his people: 

“You have taken idols for worship instead of Allah, only to keep the bond of affection among you in this worldly life. But on the Day of Judgment, you will disown and curse one another. Your home will be the Fire, and you will have no helper!” [Quran 29:25] 

Please pay close attention to these: “bond of affection” and “disown and curse one another”. 

Abraham’s people didn’t do what they did out of conviction. They didn’t believe in idols. 

What they believed in is the group, the society, and the existing patterns. 

For this reason, when the group changes its belief, the individual does so without a problem. 

In making up their mind, the first impulse of the individual is to stick to the group beliefs. 

Believers and Group Influence  

We might think the believers are safe from group influence. 

Well, not really. 

Allah said: 

“But the people divided their religion among them into sects—each faction rejoicing in what they have.” [Quran 23:53] 

Rejoicing? Why does Allah use such a term? 

Are the factions not supposed to be convinced and believe in what they have? 

No, because people believe what they believe, not by conviction, but to fit in the group.  

If our choices are not the fruit of our rationality, then we are victims of group imitation.  

We will sympathize with the group even if they mislead us. 

In The Marvels of the Heart, Al-Ghazali mentioned what blind following does to the heart. 

No knowledge contrary to blindly accepted beliefs can penetrate the heart.  

Thus, the soul hardens and we cannot perceive the true nature of reality. 

Who are the ones affected by this tendency? 

Al-Ghazali mentioned most Muslim theologians, zealous followers of the schools (madhabs), and most righteous men under the sky! 

Group Influence Is No Joke  

Image credit: Simply Psychology

The influence of the majority over the individual is real. 

In the classic experiment in social psychology, Solomon Asch gave 8 participants a ‘vision test’ with an obvious answer.

The participants needed to match the target line with the corresponding one (A, B, or C). 

Amongst the 8, only one was a real participant. They were answering last. The other 7 agreed in advance on a common answer.  

Three out of four ‘real participants’ agreed with the incorrect answers given by the group. 

Dr. Asch was astonished. But he died without an answer to his question: Did the real participants know they were wrong or their perception changed with social pressure? 

Based on the Asch experiment, a new study used brain scanning. 

The researchers found that when people went along with the group on wrong answers, activity increased in the area of the brain devoted to perception. 

It wasn’t the result of conscious decision-making, but a change in perception. 

In other terms, social pressure turns the participants blind to the obvious. 

If this happens on something as simple as a bunch of lines, imagine how is it for more serious things! 

Is There a Way Out from Group Influence?  

Faced with information going against our beliefs, we tend to ignore, forget, dismiss, or minimize the information. 

But if we remain open, we will benefit from Allah’s advice: 

“I advise you to do only one thing: stand up for the sake of Allah—individually or in pairs—then reflect.” [Quran 34:46] 

To examine how society shaped our cherished beliefs, we must think alone or with someone else. 

Otherwise, the group influence kicks in again. 

Prophets and reformers withdraw from their groups. 

In their solitude, they develop knowledge, wisdom, and strength. 

Arnold Toynbee called this phenomenon withdrawal and return. 

Confucius, Buddha, Jesus, Mohammad…they all did it. 

And when they come back from their isolation, they break the social patterns to create new ways of living. 

But this process doesn’t happen without pain. 

The group will always resist. They will pressure these individuals back into conformity. They will discourage, ridicule, or ostracize them. 

Final Thoughts  

The worst that can happen to us is to become a copy, accepting anything and everything. 

As far as Islam is concerned, we won’t be able to justify blind following by blaming society or groups. 

It is interesting that the Prophet (pbuh) didn’t have followers but companions. 

The difference is enormous. 

A companion can question, suggest ideas to the Prophet, and find creative solutions to new challenges. 

Followers can do none of these. They outsource their thinking. And by doing so, they end up harming themselves and the group. 

May Allah help us uncover our blind spots and work on them! 

Article published: April 17, 2022

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