Like many of you, I really enjoyed Andrew’s recent post and heartily agree that he should post more often! I was listening to the You Are Not So Smart podcast, an older episode called Belief Change Blindness. The psychologist being interviewed explains the triangulation of three things, all of which we kind of sloppily lump together under the umbrella of our values or beliefs: knowledge, belief and attitude. These three things are actually distinct, sometimes misunderstood for each other, and frequently mislabeled when we try to explain our views and feelings to ourselves or to other people.

  • Knowledge. This is the set of facts we may know about something. Theoretically, this can change whenever we are exposed to new information, history, statements by experts, etc. We may also have “false” facts or misinformation that we don’t know is incorrect. This is the sum total of all we know about a thing, all the arguments we know about a topic, the direct and indirect observations we’ve made (anecdotes), and any data we’ve read or researched.
  • Belief. This is what we believe about how the world works. It’s the sense we make of the world based on the knowledge we currently possess. We come to these beliefs or conclusions based on our knowledge.
  • Attitude. This is how we feel about that belief and the facts. In simplest terms, we could be positive or negatively disposed toward it, or anywhere in between. We could like how the world works or hate how it works, or be neutral about it.

When our beliefs change, particularly when they flip from one thing to its opposite, usually through the acquisition of knowledge (or newly discredited bad information), we have a very hard time acknowledging that we ever felt differently or believed differently. We can’t feel or believe that way once we feel or believe the opposite, and our mind quickly sets about rewriting our memories to fit the new beliefs or feelings.

Belief doesn’t always follow knowledge, though. You may know a lot about dragons. You may understand the lore of dragon stories, what powers dragons have, what function they perform in the stories and legends, and yet that knowledge doesn’t equate to believing that dragons are real. So, you could have this kind of split:

  • Knowledge of dragons: Vast stores of knowledge about dragons.
  • Belief in dragons: Dragons are cool, but alas, they aren’t real.
  • Attitude: Dang, it would be cool if dragons existed!

So let’s take these through a few examples. First, let’s start with polygamy. Here’s a rough overview of my triad:

  • Polygamy knowledge: I know quite a bit about it from reading, and from being around non-LDS polygamists in other cultures.
  • Belief: Polygamy is oppressive to women, and men who practice it are basically the worst.
  • Attitude: Cultures that elevate polygamy are misogynistic cultures.

If someone asked me what I think of polygamy, I have strong negative feelings about it. I would say that it exploits women and creates misery for men and women, confusion for children, and only occurs in a society in which women are viewed as subordinate to men, usually as a status symbol of male wealth and power. Those are my beliefs and attitude about polygamy based on the facts I know about it.

I can’t remember a time when I considered polygamy to be acceptable. The closest I ever got was when I was told that in the Mormon church, polygamy wasn’t as awful as that. I was told at various times that: 1) the men only practiced it because they had to, not because they wanted to, [1] 2) it gave the women more opportunity through a shared labor pool [2] so that they could go to medical school if they wanted while the wives that wanted to stay with the kids could do that, 3) that it was only done to care for the widows[3], not to satiate the men’s sexual appetites for young, attractive wives, 4) that it resulted in more children [4], 5) that it was never intended for everyone, only about 20% practiced it [5], 6) that it’s necessary in the eternities because women are so much more righteous than men that we will basically have an “eternal widows” issue that some men will have to step up and marry [6].

Why are these odd justifications a thing in Mormonism? Because there is a disconnect between the party line “belief” that the Church holds as doctrine and the “attitude” of Church members, particularly women, toward that belief. Women know instinctively that polygamy is a raw deal for us. It can only be sold to us, or at least tamped down somewhat, with new “facts,” some of which are not true or are fallacious logically. It’s easier to use misinformation to take the heat out of a negative “attitude” toward a belief when a person is young enough to accept those “facts,” then set them aside (put them on a shelf). Only when those facts are discovered to be not factual does it call into question the belief again, and/or revive the animus of the attitude.

Here’s a different version of the Knowledge, Belief, Attitude model for polygamy:

  • Knowledge: Person knows family stories of happy people who were polygamists.
  • Belief: Person holds the belief that refusing to support polygamy makes them selfish, not righteous like their ancestors.
  • Attitude: When polygamy comes up, the person feels a twinge of guilt or self-loathing for not liking it, but is resigned to assume the celestial lobotomy will improve their attitude toward it after death.

If one’s knowledge is changed on this topic, it’s easy to see how quickly the self-loathing attitude can flip to relief and blame of the organization because the doctrine of polygamy causes stress to most women.

You can see how this model would work for a variety of beliefs and attitudes. Here’s one for abortion.

  • Belief: Unborn life is innocent and sacred, and women who abort a fetus are callous monsters.
  • Attitude: I can rescue / protect life by opposing abortion.

If you change the extent of the knowledge to include stories of male irresponsibility (rape and incest), fetus inviability, and to provide empathy toward women who don’t have the emotional, mental or financial resources to raise a child, your attitude could shift, but probably not totally, and not overnight. Instead it might look more like:

  • Belief: Unborn life is important, and ensuring they have capable, supported caregivers is equally important to their birth.
  • Attitude: Abortion should be rare and women who give birth should have the support needed to raise these children.

That’s a slight but significant shift. Here’s another one to consider:

  • Belief: Democrats want to solve every problem through taxation for their “pet programs” that mostly benefit people who aren’t like me.
  • Attitude: It’s my money; I earned it. Get out of my pocket, damned Democrats!

But with some additional information, this could change to:

  • Belief: Some proposed programs do benefit me, or benefit my community, and make it possible for more people to live their dreams. Obstructing government isn’t the same thing as governing.
  • Attitude: I’d be willing to pay for things that benefit me or my community, so long as they are well managed. I’ll be skeptical, but willing to try it.

It’s been a long time since I felt at all hopeful that people can change their beliefs or attitudes, but this model actually made some sense to me. I was also thinking about some of the people I know who are not active in the Church. In some cases, they are unorthodox (not believing), and in other cases they are unorthoprax (not practicing). For example on the non-practicing side, you could have this Belief / Attitude set:

  • Belief: The Law of Chastity is a true principle, God’s law.
  • Attitude: I wish it weren’t because it’s not really practical when you’re single and 30.

But if you were non-believing yet practicing the religion, you might have this set:

  • Belief: The Church isn’t what it says it is. All Churches are man-made, but have mostly good intentions.
  • Attitude: I wish I could believe it was what it says it is. Life would be simpler.

I’ve heard this second one many times, and observed the first one as well. Beliefs and attitudes often have a disconnect like this.

It’s also often easier to live in denial of things like racism, homophobia or sexism as it’s painful to acknowledge its influence in your life, and it’s overwhelming to realize how hard it is to change these things in society. That’s just turning your wishful thinking attitude (e.g. “I don’t like sexism”) into your belief (“Sexism doesn’t exist.”) Denying that these things exist only allows us to be complacent. It doesn’t make the world a better place which takes time and effort. It’s OK to believe a thing that you don’t like. That’s what motivates us to try to change the world to be a better place.

  • Can you remember a time when facts did shift your beliefs or attitude?
  • Have you seen this shift in someone else?
  • Do you have a negative attitude toward things you believe that are religious? Did you used to?


[1] “flaming sword” my eye. That’s got to be the most ridiculous phallic excuse I’ve ever heard.

[2] This one I buy, somewhat, as a side benefit for some small number of the women, but treating women equally, eliminating the patriarchy and its accompanying gender roles, and paying women for their work also affords women opportunity.

[3] If you’re a widow, I have to think this is the worst pickup line ever. Also, it has occurred to me as an adult that you can support widows without marrying them or having sex with them. Go figure.

[4] Not true, unless you are a polygamous man who is only counting his own offspring. It does not result in more children overall in a community. It just gives the most powerful men in the group more direct descendents.

[5] Which begs the question, why was it necessary for anybody? (and of course points to the contradiction that D&C 132 says it’s necessary for all).

[6] While flattering, this is probably just placating women with a head pat about their eternal subservient status. Thanks, but no thanks. If men are so bad, why do we want to reward them with many wives?