Are Beliefs Pictures in the Head?9 min read

In a recently published piece (Strand & Lizardo, 2015) Mike and I argued that the notion of “belief” if it is to do a more adequate job as a category of analysis in social-scientific research, can best be thought of as a species of habit. I refer the interested reader to the paper for the more detail “exegetical” argumentation excavating the origins of this notion in American pragmatism (mostly in the work of Peirce and Dewey) and European practice theory (mostly in the work of Bourdieu). Here I would like to explore some reasons this proposal may seem to be so counterintuitive given our traditional conceptions of belief.

The fear, to some well-founded, is that substituting the usual notion for the habit notion would cause a net loss, and thus an inability to account for things that would like to account for (e.g. patterns of action that are driven by ideas or thoughts in the head) adequately.

What is the standard notion of belief that the “habit” notion displaces (if not replaces)? The easiest way to think of it is as one in which beliefs are thought to be little “pictures” in the head that people carry around. But what are beliefs pictures of? After all, pictures (even in modern art) usually depict something, however faint. The answer is that they are supposed to be pictures of the world that somehow the person uses to get by.

Because the beliefs are “pictures” (in cognitive science sometimes the word representation is used in this context) they have the representational properties usual pictures have. For instance, they portray the world in a certain way (e.g. under a particular description). In addition, because they are pictures, beliefs have content. That is a belief is always about something (in some philosophical segments, the word “intentionality” is usually brought up here (Searle, 1983)). In this way, some beliefs may be directed at the same state of affairs in the world, but “picture it” in different ways (Hutto, 2013). Finally, and building in on this last distinction, just like pictures claim to depict the world as it is (or at least have a resemblance to it), beliefs can be true (if they portray the world as it is) or they can be false (if the description does not match the world). This truth/falsity relation between the pictures in the head and the world turns out to be crucial for their indispensable job in “explaining” action.

For instance, if somebody opens a refrigerator, grabs a sandwich from it, and eats it, and an outside observer can “explain” the pattern by ascribing a belief to the person. So the person opened the fridge door because they thought (believed) there was a sandwich there. We usually complete this belief-based explanation by adding some kind of motive or desire as a jointly sufficient cause (“they believed there was a sandwich in the fridge and they were hungry”).

But suppose we were to see the same person open the fridge, look around and then go back to the couch empty-handed. This is a different behavioral pattern as before. However, note we can also “explain” this behavior using the same “sandwich” belief mechanism as before. The trick is simply to ascribe a false belief to the person: The imputed picture in the head does not match the actual state of the world. So we can now say, “Sam opened the fridge because they believed there was a sandwich in there and they were hungry.” We attach one more disclaimer: “But Sam was wrong, there was no sandwich.”

This flexibility makes belief-based explanations fairly powerful (they can account for a wide range of behavioral patterns). However, flexibility is also a double-edged sword: Become too flexible and you risk vacuity, explaining everything and thus nothing (see Strand & Lizardo, 2015, pp. 47–48).

Because the belief-desire combo is so flexible (and so pervasive even in our “folk” accounting of each other’s action) some people have argued that it is inevitable. So inevitable it may be the only game in town for explaining action. This would make the “pictures in the head” version of the notion of belief essentially a non-negotiable part of our explanatory vocabulary. One of the main goals of our paper was to argue that there are other options even if they seem weird at first sight.

The alternative we championed was to think of belief as a species of habit. This requires both a revision of our implicit classification of mental concepts and a revision of what we mean by “belief.” In terms of the first aspect, the usual way to think of belief and habit is to see them as distinct categories in our mental vocabulary. A habit is a “thoughtless” activity, while an action driven by belief requires “thought” to be involved. So they are two sets of mental categories, but they are as a distinct as a frog is from a zebra (even if both are a species of animal). In our proposal, however, the overarching category in mental life (for both human and nonhuman animals) is habit, and belief is a subcategory of habit. This does violence to the standard classification so it may take time to get used to.

In this respect, note that the “picture” theory of belief seems to be important in how people differentiate belief from habit. Both can be involved in action, but when action is driven by belief, the picture inside the head is on the driver’s seat and is thus an important (but always presumed) component of the action. In fact, the picture is such an important component we attribute causal force to it. Sam got up from the couch and walked to the fridge because they thought there was a sandwich in there (and they were hungry).

One last observation about the pictures in the head account of action. When the observer imputes the belief “sandwich in the fridge” to Sam and selects this belief as the “cause” of the action, by what criteria is this selection made? I bring this up only to note that there are actually a bunch of other “beliefs” that the observer could have imputed to Sam, and which could be argued to be implicated in the action, but somehow didn’t. For instance, the observer could have said one of the beliefs accounting for Sam’s action is that “there was a fridge in the room.” Or that “the fridge was plugged in” or that “the floor could sustain their weight,” and so on.

This is not just a trivial “philosophical” issue. We could impute an infinity of little world pictures in the head to Sam. In fact, as many as there are “states of affairs” about the world that make it possible for Sam to get up and check the fridge, inclusive of purely hypothetical or even “negative” pictures (e.g. the belief that “there’s not a bomb in the fridge which will be triggered to detonate when the door is opened.”). Yet, we do not (sometimes this is referred to as the “frame problem” (Dennett, 2006) in artificial intelligence circles). This means that belief imputation practices following the picture version are necessarily selective, but the criteria for selection remain obscure. This kind of obscurity should be suspicious for those who want to recruit these types of explanations as scientific accounts of action.

But we are getting ahead of ourselves. The main point of this post is simply to warm you up to the intuition that maybe the pictures in the head version of belief is not as intuitive as you may have thought nor as unproblematic or non-negotiable as it is sometimes depicted. In a future post we I will introduce the alternative conception of belief as habit and see whether it is not subject to these issues.


Dennett, D. C. (2006). Cognitive Wheels: The frame problem of AI. In J. L. Bermudez (Ed.), Philosophy of Psychology: Contemporary Readings (Vol. 433, pp. 433–454). New York: Routledge.

Hutto, D. D. (2013). Why Believe in Contentless Beliefs? In N. Nottelmann (Ed.), New Essays on Belief: Constitution, Content and Structure (pp. 55–74). London: Palgrave Macmillan UK.

Searle, J. R. (1983). Intentionality: An essay in the philosophy of mind. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Strand, M., & Lizardo, O. (2015). Beyond World Images: Belief as Embodied Action in the World. Sociological Theory, 33(1), 44–70.


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