The Power of Cultural Beliefs

The Power of Cultural Beliefs

The discomfort of cognitive dissonance can be relieved by blame and denial, seeking confirmation, or the hard work of real growth and change. Which will you choose?


We live in a world where cultural beliefs often dominate reason. Many beliefs, about the way things ought to be, are embedded in our minds as children before we learn to think for ourselves. These customs, traditions, assumptions become so much a part of us that we rely on them even if they conflict with what we can see and hear. Cognitive dissonance is a psychological theory that when we hold a belief that defies new information it causes anxiety, confusion, even anger. What is good to eat?  How can gender be fluid? Who to avoid or hate?

Even when family members, neighbors, and politicians promote ideas that can literally lead to death, we want our group, our faith, to be right and the “other” to be wrong. The current mayhem surrounding so much of the news—COVID, climate change, sexuality, and the tragic Ukrainian war—grows from giving credence to false cultural stories.

As a cultural anthropologist I have tried to find answers to some of the current cultural conflicts. I want to understand who can adapt to fast changing realities and who cannot? Why is common sense, for example on vaccines, not common practice? Why is education under attack? Two possibilities—the speed of change and the distortion of our once more commonly shared news. We are inundated with both “fake” news and fake information.

The sheer speed of the technological revolution and globalization underlie this distortion. They make essential education and adaptation harder because we are being set adrift in a new world and fear being left behind. Threats to our long-held traditions leave us swimming in a pool of social anxiety. As our community links fray—due to the mobility of both work and families—we lose the shared stories we once learned working and playing together. Where our geographical backgrounds once created guides to a way of life, we are now being pushed to form our own communities online, defying geography and heritage. As social animals we are unprepared for the loneliness or outsider status that comes with not belonging to a village. So, we reach for shared stories, even bizarre cults like QAnon, to belong to something bigger for protection and comfort.

There is a temptation to not learn new information or think about new realities. It is easier to see some changes as a threat to long-held assumptions and find like-minded people for support. But sharing beliefs that defy reality doesn’t work, as sooner or later cognitive dissonance will tear them apart.

As a child I remember not understanding why common sense was not common. Why would a person hit a child, an animal, or anyone outside of a boxing ring or war? My dad had been middleweight champion of the London Police Force and never missed the Friday night fights. But why would two men beating each other up be worth watching? Now boxing is disappearing as a sport replaced by smaller, albeit more violent, versions because brutality is an instinct linked to our reptilian brain. It will always be there, as part of our DNA despite the cognitive conflict. Americans worry that men are becoming too soft at the same time we extol emotional intelligence.

Cultural beliefs that served an earlier period remain, even when they begin to work against survival. Big game hunting was once a marker of success. A good hunter could feed more wives and raise more children. It was considered heroic, a fair fight. Baiting bears with Twinkies or shooting giraffes with high-powered guns seem the opposite. An ambitious female gatherer could feed the community when the hunt failed. How big a pantry or closet now provides security?

I was 10 when I lost faith in our church. My brother was an altar boy, but not me, because I was a girl. I had to wear a hat in church, but he didn’t. In fact, I couldn’t do much at all except clean and cook for the potluck suppers. I asked Father Franklin why I could not be like my brother when Holy Mary was so important. He laughed and said, “Jenny, there are not enough immaculate conceptions to go around. You can be a mother or a nun like your aunt.” I had thought about these options. To be a mother you had to sin, and nuns could not have children.

Racism is the harshest example of our inability to give credence to the social reality that is America. The George Floyd murder in 2020 revealed again our public and police bias, similar to the Emmett Till torture and murder 65 years earlier. It took until 2022 to make lynching a crime. Norman Rockwell’s illustration, “The Problem We All Live With,” shows hatred on the faces of high school girls as six-year-old Ruby Bridges is led into an elementary school by four U.S. Marshals in 1960. As a speaker I asked audiences what they thought about that painting, and would they spit at Ruby? I collected these responses:

“I would be angry because it was wrong then to force integration and it would be wrong now. I believe it is right to be racist.”

“I’ve changed. I used to be more racist, but I gradually changed. They needed to wait until the time was right.”

“I realized when my biracial grandson was born and my competent team leader at work was Black that I was once very wrong, and I have regrets for some of my behavior.”

Only the last comment resolves the intense cognitive dissonance that supports racism.

There are many destructive traditions that are no longer connected to survival, and it is worth thinking about those you may hold. Someone who doesn’t look like you may have once been a member of a marauding tribe thousands of years ago, but it is unlikely now. It is a fear of violence that is still in our DNA. Whether it is a long-held political preference, who you would welcome as a family member, or religious garb used to display your identity, ask yourself why do I feel this way? Cultural beliefs are currently splitting not only America but our world.

Leaders may hesitate to change their beliefs because social power requires some infallibility and continuity is safer. A political leader can disrupt an institution as basic as a democratic election or start an irrational war, and be supported by their citizens, because it is deemed patriotic. When Black athletes began to play basketball was it because they suddenly improved? Why are sports mascots changing?

We are left having to sort things out by ourselves or seek to join a group that will tell us what to think. Sorting out what is true or not is hard work. When educators want to teach students how to think for themselves parents may become suspicious. Communities are beginning to outlaw certain classes, subjects, books, even words.

Think through the last century of who deserves respect or life when you see a “Black Lives Matter” sign. Before 1900, in California, there was a 25-cent bounty for killing a Native American. Women were not allowed to vote until 1920 and Native Americans not until 1924. The first labor unions were formed in 1935; child labor laws were adopted in 1938; Chinese received civil rights in 1943, and the Civil Right Act of 1964 ended segregation and discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin. Americans with Disability Act passed in 1973 (signed into law in 1990), but the Equal Rights Amendment failed state ratification in the 1970s. Same-sex marriage was codified in 2015. What group is next? The direction of change is obvious as more and more groups are defined as human or as deserving of protection. Switzerland passed animal rights in 1978. Children still have limited rights in America depending on the state. Capital punishment still exists in some states. Many American civil rights are defined by legislatures and governors.

Check your response to some of these timelines. When did you first decide your position? Do you know why? Have you changed your view in the last decade? Do some cultural issues make you anxious? Try replacing certainty—if you have that—with curiosity. Can you argue both sides of a belief? If you think you might be missing something talk to a friend who disagrees with you.

Stay optimistic about the resolution of most cultural conflicts. The basic markers of civilization have grown over the millions of years we have been identified as human. We are more able to communicate and more connected in love, work, and play. We have expanded education to include everyone throughout their lives. We have developed in the last 100 years more alternatives to violence albeit our failures painfully confront us now. History reassures us that we are on a path of increasing civility. To be civil is to be kind. One of the few traits that all cultures agree on is kindness. The philosophers of all the ages define wisdom as choosing to be kind. We can make the same choice.

Jennifer James has a doctorate in cultural anthropology and master’s degrees in history and psychology. She was a professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Washington Medical School. Jennifer is the founding mother of the Committee for Children, an international organization devoted to the prevention of child abuse worldwide.

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