Ascription Practices: The Very Idea11 min read

How do we know what others believe? The answer to this question may seem clear but as we will see it has some interesting hidden complexities. Some of these bear directly on some established policies in social-scientific method.

One obvious answer is that if we want to know what others believe, and these others are language using creatures like ourselves is that we ask them: “Do you believe P?” If the person verbally reports believing P, then we are on safe grounds in ascribing belief P.

So far so good. But let us say a person assents to P but acts in other ways that seem counter to the content of that belief. What to do then? Cases of this sort have become popular grist for reflection in recent work in the philosophy of belief. Spurred by a series of papers by Tamar Gendler (Gendler, 2008a, 2008b), a lively literature has developed on what to ascribe when belief “sayings” (usually referred to as “judgments”) come apart from “doings” (for a sampling see Albahari, 2014; Kriegel, 2012; Mandelbaum, 2013; Schwitzgebel, 2010; Zimmerman, 2007). Some cases are stock in trade and involve people who verbally commit to a belief or attitude but act in contrary ways.

Of most interest for social and behavioral scientists are cases of what are called dissociations between “explicit” or more accurately, direct, measures of a construct (such as a belief or an attitude), which usually rely on self report, and so-called “implicit,” or more accurately, indirect measures of the same construct (Gawronski, Peters, & LeBel, 2008). While the so-called “implicit attitude test” is the most familiar indirect measure, there is an entire family composed of dozens of distinct indirect measurement strategies (Nosek, Hawkins, & Frazier, 2011). The key point is, however, that indirect measures usually rely not on verbal reports but on observations of rapid-fire action or behavioral responses that are assumed not to be under voluntary control.

Dissociations between direct and indirect measures are usually good examples of “sayings” and “doings” coming apart. If these are as common as the literature suggests, then belief (or attitude) ascription problems are also more common than we realize.

So let’s say we observe someone who fits the profile of “Chris the implicit racist.” Chris is a white high school teacher who professes the belief(s) that black people in the United States are no more or less intelligent, violent, or hardworking than white people. Yet systematically in their unguarded behavior (observed via ethnographic classroom observation or via indirect measures of implicit bias collected in the lab) Chris shows a preference for white people (e.g. they discipline black students more harshly for similar offenses; they are more likely to call on white students, etc.) and implicitly associates people with dark skin with a host of negative concepts, including lack of intelligence, proneness to violence, and a weaker work ethic.

What does Chris believe? Considerations of dissociative cases like this lead in two interesting directions. The first is that actions, practices, and behaviors have a non-negligible weight in our belief ascription practices. So judgments aren’t everything. This is important because, in polite company, our everyday practices of belief ascription follow folk cartesianism: That is, belief ascription is fixed by explicit reports of what people say they believe and people have incorrigible knowledge about those personal judgments. We cannot ascribe a belief to a person they profess not to have (alternatively people have veto power over second-person ascription practices).

In philosophy, this is called the “pro-judgment” view on ascription. This stance holds we can only ascribe the belief that P if a person reports they believe P. The actions inconsistent with P (e.g. for Chris, the automatic association of Black people with violence, or their penchant to send black students to detention for minor offenses) are acknowledged to exist but they are just not a kind of belief. They are something else. Gendler (2008a) has proposed that given the recalcitrant existence of these types of counter-doxastic behaviors, we should add a new mental category to our lexicon: “aliefs.” So we can say Chris “believes” blacks are no more violent than whites (as given by their self-report), but “alieves” they are more violent (as given by their performance on indirect attitude measures and their avoiding walking in certain predominantly black neighborhoods).

An alternative view, called the “anti-judgment” view says actions speak louder than words. Or, as indicated by the title of a recent entry in a book review symposium dedicated to Arlie Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land, anti-judgment people say “who cares what they think?” (Shapira, 2017). If Chris walks like P, and quacks like P, then Chris believes P.

I should note that this belief ascription strategy is not that bizarre and that it exists as a “second option” in our commonsense arsenal, even if our first option is folk cartesianism. This should alert you that ascription practices may be very much a matter of socio-cultural tradition and regulation as they are a matter of the usual canons of rationality.

This matters if these same ascription practices are followed mindlessly in social science research. This would be a case of folk practices dictating what should be a matter of social scientific consideration. In this sense, social scientists should care very much if they are pro-judgment folk cartesians, anti-judgment, or something else, as this will bear directly on their conclusions. But we are getting ahead of ourselves. The point is that “trumping” a person’s cartesian incorrigibility by pointing to their inconsistent actions is an available move (both in social science and everyday life) but it is also one that should seldom be undertaken lightly.

Note that the pro-judgment and anti-judgment views are not the only available ones. To fill out the space of options: We may ascribe both P and ~P beliefs (the contradictory belief view). Or we may ascribe a mixture of the inconsistent beliefs (the “in-between” belief view). Or we may say Chris believes neither P nor ~P, but that they vacillate inconsistently between the two depending on circumstances (the shifting view) (Albahari, 2014).

And this is the second thing that inconsistency between sayings and doings highlight. Rather than focusing on goings-on trapped within each person’s cartesian theater, we can now see that beliefs are very much a matter of both actions and practices, both in terms of the believer and the ascriber. In this respect, two consideraations come to the fore.

First, there are the “belief proclamation” practices we are used to (e.g. people verbally saying they believe thus and so) but also the myriad of behaviors and actions that other people monitor and that they use to ascribe beliefs to others. It is these belief ascription practices I wanted to highlight in this post. As noted, they are both a matter of everyday interpersonal interaction, and for my purposes, they are a standard, but seldom commented upon, aspect of every social scientific practice. After all, social scientists (especially those who do qualitative work) constantly ask people what they believe about a host of things (e.g. Edin & Kefalas, 2011; Young, 2006), and are thus confronted with self-reports of people claiming to believe things. These same social scientists may also sometimes have the opportunity to observe these people in ecologically natural settings, which allows them to compare self-reports to doings (Jerolmack & Khan, 2014).

In this post, I will not try to adjudicate or argue for what the best ascription strategy is. I will leave that for a future post. Here I note two things. First, it is clear certain ascription practices have elective affinities with certain conceptions of what beliefs are. For instance, “pro-judgment” views have an affinity with the “pictures in the head” conception of belief. As such, pro-judgment views assume all of the things that such a conception assumes, such as representationalism, the relevance of the truth/falsity criterion and so on. “Anti-judgment” views focusing on action, may be said to be more consonant with some forms of practice theory, as can some other (e.g. “in-between” or “contradictory” views).

Second, belief ascription practices have the familiar duality of being both possible “topics” and “resource” for sociological analysis that fascinated early ethnomethodology. We can be “neutral” about their import for sociological research and study belief ascription practices as a topic. We may ask questions such as under what circumstances people default to folk cartesianism, when they prefer anti-judgment views, when they go “in between” or “contradictory” and so on.

Alternatively we may examine the issue by considering the role of belief ascription practices as a resource for sociological explanation. Are pro-judgment views always effective? Should we go anti-judgment and ignore what people say in favor of their behavior? These are some issues I hope to tackle in future posts.


Albahari, M. (2014). Alief or belief? A contextual approach to belief ascription. Philosophical Studies, 167(3), 701–720.

Edin, K., & Kefalas, M. (2011). Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood before Marriage. University of California Press.

Gawronski, B., Peters, K. R., & LeBel, E. P. (2008). What Makes Mental Associations Personal or Extra-Personal? Conceptual Issues in the Methodological Debate about Implicit Attitude Measures. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 2(2), 1002–1023.

Gendler, T. S. (2008a). Alief and Belief. The Journal of Philosophy, 105(10), 634–663.

Gendler, T. S. (2008b). Alief in Action (and Reaction). Mind & Language, 23(5), 552–585.

Jerolmack, C., & Khan, S. (2014). Talk Is Cheap: Ethnography and the Attitudinal Fallacy. Sociological Methods & Research.

Kriegel, U. (2012). Moral Motivation, Moral Phenomenology, And The Alief/Belief Distinction. Australasian Journal of Philosophy, 90(3), 469–486.

Mandelbaum, E. (2013). Against alief. Philosophical Studies, 165(1), 197–211.

Nosek, B. A., Hawkins, C. B., & Frazier, R. S. (2011). Implicit social cognition: from measures to mechanisms. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 15(4), 152–159.

Schwitzgebel, E. (2010). Acting contrary to our professed beliefs or the gulf between occurrent judgment and dispositional belief. Pacific Philosophical Quarterly, 91(4), 531–553.

Shapira, H. (2017). Who Cares What They Think? Going About the Right the Wrong Way. Contemporary Sociology, 46(5), 512–517.

Young, A. A. (2006). The Minds of Marginalized Black Men: Making Sense of Mobility, Opportunity, and Future Life Chances. Princeton University Press.

Zimmerman, A. (2007). The Nature of Belief. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 14(11), 61–82.


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