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PSYC 480.3: Psychology of Beliefs

David J. Schneider

Sewall Hall 462



Beliefs are among the most primitive and central of mental constructs, and yet there is little agreement as to what they are or how they should be construed. They are basic to our understanding of a wide range of central phenomena in modern psychology. For example our beliefs are key components of our personalities and senses of identity, and our expressions of beliefs often define us to others. Many of our reactions to others are based on our beliefs and our perceptions of theirs, and it is impossible to understand racism, prejudice, religious and national conflicts without considering disagreement in basic belief systems. We join many groups because we believe the group will support our beliefs, and our participation in groups changes many of our beliefs. We seek psychotherapy in our effort to change our beliefs about self and the things we hold dear. Our political and religious beliefs are central to many of us. Many of our behaviors, mundane and consequential, are affected by what we believe. And on it goes.

There are many ways to approach the study of beliefs. The way which we will use is to focus on problematic beliefs, sometimes called anomalous or bizarre beliefs. Examples are beliefs in ESP and the paranormal, astrology, the reality of events that could not possibly have occurred, scientific theories and medical cures that are rejected by most experts, to extreme religious and political ideas. At the same time we recognize that a few beliefs that seem bizarre at one time become perfectly normal later. Most of our beliefs are essentially unproblematic in the sense that we do not question them or worry much about their validity. In fact huge numbers of our beliefs seem so grounded in reality or so much a part of our culture that it seems silly to question them and an empty academic exercise to seek their sources. On the other hand, most of us, at least when we are being thoughtful, recognize that other of our beliefs may have fragile contact indeed with any known larger reality. Furthermore people hold anomalous beliefs with as much conviction as we hold our unproblematic beliefs, and they often turn the tables on us by suggesting that we are the people who are of touch with reality. By studying such beliefs and the reasons for them, perhaps we can learn more about our own.


Galanter, Marc. Cults: Faith, Healing, and Coercion. Oxford press, 1989

Gilovich, Thomas. How We Know What Isn't So. Free Press, 1991

Pendergrast, Mark. Victims of Memory (revised edition), Upper Access, 1996

Shermer, Michael. Why People Believe Weird Things, Freeman, 1997

Shermer, Michael  How We Believe: The Search for God in an Age of Science

Wright, Lawrence. Remembering Satan, Knopf, 1994.

Course Requirements

The course will be run as a seminar with emphasis on discussion. You will be expected to have done the reading carefully before each class, and to be prepared to discuss the material. There will be occasional short papers due at the beginning of class, and each student will do a major term-paper with a focus on one set of anomalous beliefs; there will be a separate handout on the term paper. The paper will be due the last day of classes, April 30. We may do a group research project. Grades in the course will be based on class participation (50%) and the term paper (50%).




What Are Beliefs

Adler, J.E. (1998). Open minds and the argument from ignorance Skeptical Inquirer, 22(1), 41-44.

Alcock, J.E. (1995). The belief engine. Skeptical Inquirer, 19(3), 14-18.

Gilbert, D. T. (1991). How mental systems believe. Psychological Review, 46, 107-119.

James, W. (1896). "The will to believe" in The Will to Believe, Human Immortality. Dover.

Katz, D. (1960). The functional approach to the study of attitudes. Public Opinion Quarterly, 24, 163-204.

Peirce, C.S. (1877). "The fixation of belief" Philosophical Writings of Peirce, Dover.

Shermer, Why People Believe: Introduction, Prologue, Chapters 1-2


Cognitive Illusions

Shermer, Why People Believe: Chapter 3

Gilovich, 2-4

Zusne, L. & Jones, W.H. Anomalistic Psychology (2nd ed). Erlbaum, 1989, Chapter 2 "Magical thinking"


Cognitive Illusions

Anderson, W.R. (1998). Why would people not believe weird things? Skeptical Inquirer, 22(5), 42-45

Bacon, F (1620). The New Organon, Aphorisms, XXXVIII-LXV

Chapman, C.R., & Harris, A.W. (2002). A skeptical look at September 11th: How we can defeat terrorism by reacting to it more rationally. Skeptical Inquirer, 26(5), 29-34

Goode, E. (2000). Two paranormalisms or two and a half? An empirical exploration. Skeptical Inquirer, 24(1), 29-35. 

Kahneman, D., & Tversky, A. (1982). The simulation heuristic. In D. Kahneman & A. Tversky (Eds.), Judgment Under Uncertainity: Heuristics and Biases. NY: Cambridge U. Press.

Martin, B. (1998). Coincidences: Remarkable or random. Skeptical Inquirer, 22 (5), 23-27.

McDonald, J. (1998). 200% probability and beyond: The compelling nature of extraordinary claims in the absence of alternative explanations. Skeptical Inquirer, 22(1), 45-64.

Singer, M. The vitality of mythical numbers. In D. Kahneman & A. Tversky (Eds.), Judgment Under Uncertainity: Heuristics and Biases. NY: Cambridge U. Press.

Taylor, J.H., Eve, R.A., & Harrold, F.B. (1995). Why creationists don't go to psychic fairs: Differential sources of pseudoscientific beliefs. Skeptical Inquirer, 19(6), 23-28

Wiseman, R., Smith, M., & Wiseman, J. (1995). Eyewitness testimony and the paranormal. Skeptical Inquirer, 19(6), 29-32.


Religious Beliefs

Schermer, How We Believe, all


Social Factors

Gilovich, Chapters 5-7


Social Factors

Bartholomew, R. (1997), Collective delusions: A skeptic's guide. Skeptical Inquirer, 21(3), 29-33

Briggs, R. (1996). Witches and Neighbors: The Social and Cultural Context of European Witchcraft. Viking Press. Chapter 2 "A witch confesses" pp. 17-59

Brunvand, J.H. (1995). "Lights out": A faxlore phenomenon. Skeptical Inquirer, 19(2), 32-37

Bulgatz, J. (1992). Ponzi  Schemes, Invaders from Mars & More Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. Harmony Books. Chapter 4 "Invaders from Mars  and bat-men on the moon" pp. 117-153, Chapter 10, "Musical madness", pp. 325-349.

Mackay, Charles (1841). Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. Noonday Press reprint. "Tulipomania", pp 89-97.

Stewart, J.R. (1991). The West Bank collective hysteria. Skeptical Inquirer, 15, 153-160.

Victor, J.S. (1990). The spread of Satanic-cult rumors. Skeptical Inquirer, 1990, 14, 287-291


Cults and Brainwashing

Galanter, all




Memories of Sexual Abuse

Wright, all


Memories of Sexual Abuse

Pendergrast, Chapters 1-4

Spanos, N.P. (1994). Multiple identity enactments and multiple personality disorder: A Sociocognitive perspective. Psychological Bulletin, 116, 143-165


Memories of Sexual Abuse

Pendergrast, Chapters 5-8


Witch Hunts: Old and Modern

Pendergrast, Chapters 9-11


Some Anomalous Beliefs

Shermer, Why We Believe: Chapters 9-17


Some Anomalous Beliefs

Bem, D.J., & Honorton, C. (1994). Does Psi exist? Replicable evidence for an anomalous process of information transfer. Psychological Bulletin, 115, 4-18.

Bem, D.J. (1994), Response to Hyman. Psychological Bulletin, 115, 25-27.

Gilovich, Chapters, 8-11

Hyman, R. (1994). Anomaly or artifact? Comments on Bem and Honorton. Psychological Bulletin, 115, 19-24.

Shermer, Why We Believe: Chapters 4-8


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