Belief traps: Tackling the inertia of harmful beliefs

Marten Scheffer*, Denny Borsboom, Sander Nieuwenhuis, Frances Westley

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

14 Citations (Scopus)


Beliefs can be highly resilient in the sense that they are not easily abandoned in the face of counterevidence. This has the advantage of guiding consistent behavior and judgments but may also have destructive consequences for individuals, nature, and society. For instance, pathological beliefs can sustain psychiatric disorders, the belief that rhinoceros horn is an aphrodisiac may drive a species extinct, beliefs about gender or race may fuel discrimination, and belief in conspiracy theories can undermine democracy. Here, we present a unifying framework of how self-amplifying feedbacks shape the inertia of beliefs on levels ranging from neuronal networks to social systems. Sustained exposure to counterevidence can destabilize rigid beliefs but requires organized rational override as in cognitive behavioral therapy for pathological beliefs or institutional control of discrimination to reduce racial biases. Black-and-white thinking is a major risk factor for the formation of resilient beliefs associated with psychiatric disorders as well as prejudices and conspiracy thinking. Such dichotomous thinking is characteristic of a lack of cognitive resources, which may be exacerbated by stress. This could help explain why conspiracy thinking and psychiatric disorders tend to peak during crises. A corollary is that addressing social factors such as poverty, social cleavage, and lack of education may be the most effective way to prevent the emergence of rigid beliefs, and thus of problems ranging from psychiatric disorders to prejudices, conspiracy theories, and posttruth politics.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere2203149119
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number32
Publication statusPublished - 9 Aug 2022


  • beliefs
  • conspiracy thinking
  • education
  • inequality
  • psychiatric disorders


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