Despite the rhetoric about how important it is to structure policy and practice on evidence, the reality is that nearly everything we do is based on our beliefs. Not specifically on religious beliefs but on how we believe the world to be. This colours our values, priorities and opinions on a raft of issues. Beliefs also impact on how we perceive and position others. Are they fellow humans who share our world or are they a threat? If you believe that those on benefits are scroungers and could work if they wanted, then you will resent your taxes being spent on welfare. If you believe some people are down on their luck because jobs have been cut, they have a disability or a care responsibility, then you may be aware of your own blessings and feel it’s only right to help out – hoping they would do the same for you if fortunes were reversed.

Trying to bludgeon people with evidence that counters their beliefs is a highway to nowhere. Although we might consider we are being rational and objective, we are asking people to admit their worldview is flawed. Unsurprisingly, their response is likely to be subjective and antagonistic. Rather than ‘sensibly’ welcome your knowledge on the issue they may get angry and defend their beliefs to the hilt. Rather than changing on the basis of the evidence their stance becomes more rooted.

This is particularly problematic when it comes to those in power who are not only making policies that affect all of us but are in a position to be heard – often using emotive language to persuade others to their beliefs. Think of any dictator. Think of politicians you know!

So how do beliefs change?

Any culture and the dominant belief system within it is largely created by language – what we say to each other. If nearly everyone in your community, especially those with the loudest voices, the papers you read, and the programs you watch are all espousing the same beliefs it is hard not to go along with that … and it might mean derision or other personal risk to try and say something different. It is easier to accept the dominant view than challenge it. So, one way your beliefs might change is to become embedded in alternative conversations. This might happen if you go away to college, live somewhere else or just find yourself with a different group of people. If you hang about with them long enough chatting over coffee, reading the same books, seeing the same films, in time your beliefs might shift – perhaps gradually or with blinding moments of insight. This happened to individuals who joined protest movements against the Iraq war and met new people with different ideas – but all with the same goal.

The other way in which a belief system might be questioned is multiple, mediated experiences. Not just one, but several – and accompanied by conversations and questions that demand reflection. Personal construct theory tells us we all try to fit what happens into our existing belief system (or set of constructs) about the way the world works. Take climate change for instance: the breaking of many weather records over the last decade can be dismissed as ‘just weather, weather is unpredictable’. There is of course a truth to this but it is only half the story. When someone becomes personally affected by freak storms, recurring floods or drought and others around them are saying, ‘well this is linked to climate change’, they may begin to re-evaluate their beliefs.

A wonderful example of changing belief through multiple mediated experiences was on SBS Television recently on a program called First Contact.

Six white Australians who had never met an indigenous person were taken to several Aboriginal communities across Australia over a period of a month, including in cities, remote areas, areas of extreme disadvantage and in prison. The cohort began with diverse opinions about Aborigines which ranged from curiosity to downright hostility. Comments at the beginning of the program included ‘they get a free ride and I work my arse off’, ‘they like to drink’, ‘they do nothing to help themselves’. One woman one walked away in the middle of the program but all those who stayed were changed. With personal contact, challenging experiences and many conversations they not only shifted their belief system about indigenous people, but also about themselves and their own lives. It was an emotional journey.

Deep understanding

What shone out from this program was the touching of lives together – finding the shared humanity, realising ‘that could have been me’. The participants came to understand that good stories about strong leadership, inspirational Aboriginal women, change and effort were not part of the national conversation. When people are left in ignorance stereotypes flourish. One woman said ‘I wasn’t racist, I was just ignorant’ – but just giving someone information does not go far enough – it is simply cognitive, not threaded through the whole person. It is mediated personal experience that makes the difference, touching the heart and the humanity as well as the head.

The final program was on SBS Insight – six months after the program was recorded. The change in beliefs was not only sustained, but reinforced after a period of reflection.

It takes courage to change a belief and even greater courage to admit that you have: Wouldn’t it be wonderful if just occasionally someone in public life did this?