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Cognitive Biases: Alief

In this video, the psychologist Laurie Santos (Yale University) explains the philosopher Tamar Gendler (Yale University)'s concept of alief — an automatic or habitual mental attitude. The video discusses why aliefs differ from beliefs and how aliefs can affect our important decisions more than we expect.

Speaker: Dr. Laurie Santos, Associate Professor of Psychology, Yale University.

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Video transcript

(intro music) Hi! My name is Laurie Santos. I teach psychology at Yale University, and today I want to talk to you about aliefs. This lecture is part of a series on cognitive biases. Imagine that you're visiting the Grand Canyon, and you decide to take a walk on their skywalk, a huge glass bridge suspended above the raging waters of the Colorado River. Now imagine that you head out to the middle of the skywalk and look down. You see your feet resting on the clear glass, standing four thousand feet up. How do you think you would feel? If you're like most people, you might feel pretty terrified. Your heart would be faster, your palms would get sweaty, you might grip on the railing just a little bit tighter. But the fact that you feel this scared is pretty weird. After all, the Skywalk is perfectly safe. It's bolted in place with hundreds of steel girders. It's exactly as strong as it would be if it were made with an opaque floor, and even stronger than it would be if it were only four hundred, or forty, or even four feet in the air. It's basically as solid as anything you have ever set foot on before. You also have lots of data showing how safe it is. Thousands of visitors walk along the skywalk every single year, and not a single one of them has fallen through. It's safer than crossing the street, or riding in a car, or even standing on a regular balcony. So why do you get so scared? What's going on? The disconnect between your belief that the skywalk is perfectly safe and your sense that you might to your death shows the power of what are known as "aliefs." Aliefs are automatic or habitual belief-like attitudes. They're the way we instinctively respond to stuff, stuff that we instinctively like or dislike, or even stuff there we're just really used to. The term "alief" was coined by the philosopher Tamar Gendler. She decided to use the word "alief" because aliefs are kinda like beliefs, except they're affective and associative and automatic and arrational. So she called them "aliefs." When you're standing on the skywalk, you believe that you're perfectly safe. Otherwise, you wouldn't have stepped out there. But you also simultaneously alieve that you're at risk for falling, hence the sweaty palms. And that's the interesting thing about aliefs. They don't necessarily track what we actually believe to be true, like the fact that you'll be perfectly safe on the skywalk. The problem is that even we realize our aliefs don't reflect reality, that they don't match what we believe to be true, that they're perfectly arrational, our aliefs don't just go away. They stick around and guide many many of our behaviours anyway. It's this stickiness of aliefs that make them so strange. That's the reason we get scared at horror movies like Jaws, even though we know that the shark in the movie is just a bunch of plastic. And as the psychologist Paul Rozin famously showed, that's why we wouldn't want to eat a yummy piece of chocolate that shaped like this. And as the cognitive scientist Fiery Cushman showed, that's why you don't like using a hammer to do this, even when you know the hand is just plastic. But aliefs are also at work in more serious cases. If you've lived in a society structured by a legacy of racial bias, you may believe that African-Americans and Caucasians are equal, but you're aliefs may reflect a whole host of implicit racial biases. If you have lived in a society where men tend to be doctors and women tend to be nurses, you may believe that women are just as good as men at science, but your aliefs might be different. And, as many psychologists have recently shown, those biased aliefs may play a bigger role in your hiring decisions more than you might think. So next time you hesitate to touch a plastic spider, or cry at a sad but fictional movie, or even notice some of your mistaken biases, you'll know that these are your powerful aliefs at work.