Thought-Contents: On the Ontology of Belief and the Semantics of Belief Attribution

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A differential equation approach will not work, because one cannot parameterize the values of the variables in order to create a belief change trajectory or phase portrait within a vector field. A structural equation modeling approach will not work, because one needs dimensionality reduction.

For example, if one holds 13 separate beliefs, the binominal coefficient is Their interaction effects are 13! Beliefs simply cannot be converted into numbers. They are not variables with values.

Consequently, there must be some other way to fit beliefs into a non-linear dynamical model. The solution is that beliefs have semantic, propositional content. Semantic content need not be expressed in complete sentences or even phrases. It can be concepts that either are the semantic content or that combine to form it Laurence and Margolis, Beliefs are just such a conceptual state. Unlike variables populated by values, they must be elicited using a natural language and then comprised into sets at various stages of the belief generating process t 1 , t 2 ,… t n.

Credences are situated along a continuum ranging from complete certainty of falsehood does not meet perceived conditions of satisfaction to complete certainty of truth meets perceived conditions of satisfaction , depending on the evidence Joyce, In order to assign a preference function, one must adopt a theory of utility to determine what counts as a desirable utility-maximizing action; establish degrees of belief; rank preferences; and determine what evidence counts as confirming what beliefs Johnson-Laird, , ; Meacham and Weisberg, The higher a belief's preference function, the more likely it is to provide a basis for behavior Segerberg et al.

Following this compilation process, different belief sets then can be evaluated in order to determine the nature, scope and extent of belief revision, most likely by a human skilled in use of the language in which the beliefs are expressed 8. It is likely that different beliefs impose contrasting and disparate semantic burdens, based on factors such as prevalence, complexity, and the number of inferences involved.

An example of a technique that has been devised to elicit beliefs is the articulated thoughts in simulated situations ATSS think-aloud paradigm, initially developed by Davison et al. Zanov and Davison, Computational semantics attempts to model key features of natural language processes such as word meaning, sentence meaning, pragmatic usage and background knowledge Stone, Research Group. WordNet is a lexical database that groups words into sets of distinct cognitive concepts.


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LSA evaluates word similarity by similarity of context of use. SNePS is a natural language knowledge representation and reasoning system. It too requires both individual beliefs and their relationships to be semantically encoded. One of the research priorities of several of today's most prominent internet companies is to develop algorithms for natural language recognition. Closely related are problems of semantic entailment, that is, when a phrase or sentence commits one to other associated concepts.

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A cognitive account of belief: a tentative road map

One has an extensive set of unspecific background beliefs, which are culturally sensitive and context-dependent. Activities such as data selection, acquisition and learning require constant revision to one's knowledge base. Belief formation is subject to the overwhelming intervention of human experience, chance events and real-world constraints Oaksford and Chater, Another important factor involved in belief semantics is the dynamics of natural language formation. Any language must have certain minimal constructs and features. These include generativity one can create an indefinite number of new sentences from its component elements ; discreteness semantic elements, such as words, retain their identity, even in different syntactical contexts ; compositionality smaller language units, such as words, can be combined to form more complex ones, such as sentences ; predictability; and recursion phrases can be embedded within phrases to create new sentences Hauser et al.

For Chomsky, syntax was the essential component of language, as opposed to semantics meaning and reference and pragmatics how language actually is used Chomsky, 9. It is beyond the scope of this review to investigate the complex relationships between language and mind for a current overview, see Gleitman and Papafragou, , Our concern is not just a matter of choosing new words to describe beliefs, but rather reformulating beliefs, which then are expressed using words.

At a minimum, we are in accord with Davidson , who holds that belief is central to thought and that to have a belief requires the ability to express it using words The substantive propositional content of an individual belief is interesting and important, particularly for determining just which dysfunctional beliefs typically align with different types of psychopathology. We are more interested, though, in the relationship of an individual belief to the other constituents of the belief set of which the individual belief is a member, and how that set's membership changes or is reformulated between t 1 and t n.

Belief revision does not involve alteration or replacement of that which the belief is about, i. It is not a form of reality modification. Given these complex conditions, how can belief revision using CBT be integrated into a theory of non-linear, dynamical systems? As set forth at our Introduction, above, belief revision essentially involves two separate pathways: one through cognition, the other through behavior.

CBT straightforwardly uses interventions directed toward both. The first, cognitive restructuring, requires belief revision in order to initiate behavioral change. Figure 2. Schematic of non-linear dynamical belief revision processes in CBT. It contends that belief revision is the active ingredient motivating behavioral change: if belief set k 1 at time t 1 is modified to belief set k n at time t n , then more adaptive behavior will follow Leahy, , p.

Cognitive restructuring erodes dysfunctional beliefs through several steps: 1 identify them; 2 marshal disconfirming evidence against them; 3 deconstruct them by challenging and refuting them; 4 replace them with alternative, more functional beliefs; and then 5 conduct behavioral experiments to see how the environment responds Huppert, ; McMillan and Lee, ; Morina et al. Examples of cognitive-oriented interventions include decatastrophizing, disputing the evidence, detecting logical errors, chain analysis, situational analysis, etc.


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Leahy and Rego, Clinical interventions look something like these: If one is afraid of snakes, that belief can be challenged through a series of counter-examples. A herpetologist might be concerned with the snake's various anatomical features. A veterinarian might be concerned with its health.

A herpetoculturist might be concerned with its taxonomy. Some people have them as pets, or pose with them for photographs, or perform with them in theatrical productions. Each of these persons has a different, proactive mental stance toward things that are or that appear to be snakes, none of which are threatening.

If you're dead, then therapy won't work and you won't be able to get better. It follows that in order to recalibrate one's belief-generating system, one must modify one's credences in the evidence supporting the pathological belief. The first step in cognitive restructuring is to elicit BEL x. Like belief, fear simply is another propositional attitude, i.

Once one has accumulated enough relevant evidence, the choice clearly is framed: spend a significant portion of one's time entrained to the feared outcome, vs. From an assessment standpoint, this likely would require one to have good metacognitive awareness, that is, the ability to reflect upon, understand and control their learning Schraw and Dennison, in order to be able to identify and articulate their beliefs.

A related concept from attachment theory is that of reflective functioning, that is, the ability to observe and describe one's own mental state Fonagy et al. It is difficult to challenge entrenched beliefs, even when they result in target behavior. Although maladaptive, to some extent they relieve immediate personal distress.

Over time they are reinforced and become a conditioned response to the circumstances triggering them, which consolidate around their utility and effectiveness Hartley and Phelps, Example: aerophobia fear of flying. In effect one has become fear-conditioned: the unconditioned stimulus flying initially provokes anxiety unconditioned response , then becomes paired or associated with other typically-innocuous contexts or situations extrapolated from or analogized to the original one such as acrophobia, fear of heights, the conditioned stimulus Samanez-Larkin et al.

The resulting thought-pathways become ingrained with experience as they are reinforced by sufficient confirming evidence that maintains the associated beliefs until they become conditioned, learned responses Tryon and McKay, One keeps doing the same thing over and over again because one is afraid of the perceived consequences of doing anything else.

From a clinical perspective, too much thinking can become therapy-interfering, because one might approach the feared outcome as a puzzle to be solved. If this happens, then cognitive restructuring might backfire and one's tolerance of the feared outcome deteriorates even further. Feelings and thoughts both are in continuous competition for the same cognitive resources. They barely may be able to tolerate their dysfunctional beliefs, much less generate new ones.

Persons with body dysmorphic disorder BDD , for example, have a granular information processing style so they recall selective details of their appearance, rather than larger organizational design features Feusner et al. This makes it difficult for them to generalize from a specific exposure addressing a particular feared outcome to more global cognitive change. While one might become inoculated or desensitized to a particular trigger, establishing it also applies in other contexts requires deducing there is a more pervasive relationship between them—which is a cognitive process.

In effect one must blunt the impulse toward fractalization. If one adopts the wrong cognitive hypothesis, then it will be ineffective to revise the associated belief set. If one is afraid of physiological symptoms such as those characteristic of panic, then the question should be, what happens next? If the terminal fear is not adequately specified, then target behavior actually might increase over baseline, because rather than contending with dysfunctional beliefs, one just has animated or enlivened them.

One just has deferred dealing with it. As a result, further triggers will continue to recruit and redeploy cognitive, affective and physiological assets to support it Smits et al. Because CBT regards dysfunctional beliefs as distortions or errors in thinking, such a challenge might be experienced as emotionally invalidating Leahy, , p.

Familiar and to some extent serviceable beliefs may be revealed as unrealistic, mistaken, distorted, or even irrational. It emphasizes emotional validation in addition to cognitive restructuring.

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It is not enough to focus only on beliefs and behavior, because emotions and their associated interoceptive sensations also are an integral component of the same equation. In fact, if anything, in a contest between emotions and cognitions, emotions most likely will win out, because they are more fundamental and, in a sense, primordial LeDoux, ; Damasio, ; Afraimovich et al.

A recent study by Moser et al. What CBT lacks and what we offer is a theory of belief revision—which beliefs get changed, why those instead of others, and what the constraints are. Cognitive therapy is a means to behavioral change, not an end in and of itself.

Psychology of Belief Part 9: Agenticity

It proposes that the main driver for therapeutic change is behavior, not cognition. It assumes that it is difficult for cognition alone to motivate new behavior; that one of the main reasons why persons engage in target behavior is to attempt to induce their environment to respond; that when reinforcement contingencies are altered, behavioral modification follows; and that psychological change occurs as a result.

Instead of being the driving force motivating behavioral change, cognition brings up the rear.

THE METAPHYSICS OF RESPONSIBLE BELIEVING

This dichotomy is similar to that between thought and action, or thinking vs. Sometimes people enact coping strategies to prevent something bad from happening; occasionally, it may even be pleasurable. If, however, actions have not had effects, then it is necessary to supply them in order to consequate that behavior. The next step is to unpair or decouple a conditioned stimulus from an unconditioned one, or to extinguish target behavior that previously has been reinforced and the entire cycle giving rise to it , by establishing prospective environmental contingencies; acquiring skills; enacting new behavior; and then evaluating evidence as to how the environment responds Spiegler and Guevremont, At each stage, behavioral markers demonstrate that the feared outcome did not occur.

However, it is ineffective over the long term, as novel and even more threatening stimuli arise in the world and present for interpretation and action Roemer et al. It does not affect one's pre-existing vulnerabilities and the environmental affordances that trigger or activate them. It does not down-regulate dysfunctional beliefs or dysregulated emotions. Adaptive new behavior, on the other hand, is generated by stepwise exposure followed by systematic desensitization or response prevention. As one confronts the feared stimulus, the fear becomes extinguished through a reverse inhibitory learning process, allowing for more flexible control of conditioned response by forming a consolidated extinction memory.

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