What are your “anchor beliefs”?

Really enjoyed this recent post at Clearer Thinking on “anchor beliefs”

There’s an important type of belief most of us have, which we call “Anchor Beliefs.” These beliefs are, by definition, those beliefs we hold that are almost impossible to change. To the believer, an Anchor Belief doesn’t feel like a mere belief – it feels like an undeniable truth. These beliefs are often too deeply rooted to change, and the cost of giving them up may be extremely high (e.g., questioning the belief might cause you to lose your family, friends, livelihood, or your understanding of what reality looks like).

Understanding the role that Anchor Beliefs play in human psychology – and identifying your own personal Anchor Beliefs – can help you make better sense of the world around you. Additionally, such an understanding can help you search for false Anchor Beliefs, those apparently unquestionable truths that make up the foundations of some people’s worldviews, despite being wrong! Challenging your own false anchors is very difficult, but the consequences may be life-changing…

Anchor Beliefs almost never change, yet we still have to make sense of new information that we come across (some of which may strongly contradict our Anchor Beliefs). Our solution is to warp the evidence that we receive such that we can fit it into our worldview AND keep our Anchor Belief intact at the same time. This is how Anchor Beliefs get their name: they are like huge, steel anchors securing boats to the ocean floor – only an enormously powerful current will be able to make them budge; any lesser current will simply swirl around the anchor. In this way, only incredibly powerful evidence can pose a threat to our Anchor Beliefs. And even then, our brains are highly adept at interpreting evidence so that our original Anchor Belief remains steadfast…

Here are some common categories of Anchor Beliefs that could be false:

  • Things that almost everyone you know is taught

  • Certain religious beliefs learned in childhood

  • Perceptions of ourselves (e.g., as good/bad)

  • Views about one’s community

  • Views about “enemy” groups

  • Inferences from viscerally shocking first-hand experiences (e.g., “the world’s unsafe”)

  • Beliefs your social group REQUIRES

  • Claims that the reputation of your most trusted authority figures are staked on

  • Beliefs that, if you stopped believing them, would leave you very confused about what to believe or what to do

The idea of an Anchor Belief is connected to (though not the same as) a number of other ideas, including:

Finding your Anchor Beliefs


It may be valuable to ask yourself: “What are my own Tin Anchors?” If you want to consider what Tin Anchor Beliefs you may have, here are some questions that it might be helpful to ask yourself:

  • “What beliefs did I pick up from those around me that I can’t imagine not believing (yet many people in other social groups somehow manage not to believe)?”

  • “What viscerally shocking experience might I have overgeneralized from that explains my worldview now?”

  • “What might other people from another community claim my Anchor Beliefs are?”

These are pretty safe queries, as you’re very unlikely to stop believing your Tin Anchor Beliefs. And identifying one of your beliefs as a Tin Anchor doesn’t make it change, though it might be useful to know where your Anchors lie. Of course, it might be valuable (though costly) to change an Anchor Belief that you hold, if you want to. This might be something worth considering.

So, how do you challenge your Anchor Beliefs?

Suppose you think that you’ve found one of your own Tin Anchors that you think has important implications for your life and you actually want to examine whether it’s true. One strategy that may help is to try and clearly imagine the world where this Tin Anchor Belief turns out to be false. What is that world like? Can you deal with and accept that world? How would believing that you live in that world change your behavior and relationships? Can you accept those changes? If you DO live in that world (where your Anchor Belief is false), would you want to believe you live in it, or would you rather pretend that your Anchor Belief isn’t false? If the answer is truly “yes” – you really would want to know if the belief is false, and you’re prepared to face the ramifications and consequences of losing that belief – then now you can truly start to put the belief to the test.

So what are my anchor beliefs?  Without putting too much thought into it, probably something like this…

1) The scientific method is absolutely, positively the best way to know things.  When there is near-scientific consensus on a belief, it may not necessarily be true, but the burden of proof should be very high to believe otherwise.

2) Same goes for beliefs about the world based on social science.

3) Strongly related to the above… expertise is a thing and it really matters.  When the experts are in (near) consensus, that does not mean they are right with certainty, but there should be a very high evidentiary bar for believing otherwise.

4) The mainstream media is not lying to me.  They get a lot wrong, but there actual motives are to disseminate true information while making a profit they just don’t always do it very well.  Fox News, in contrast, has a primary motive to disseminate information which helps the Republican Party while making a profit.

5) I believe I am actually open to changing my beliefs through sufficient evidence.  I hope I’m right (the fact that I can point to many examples based on points 1-4 tells me I probably am).  

I could probably come up with more, especially relating to how society and government should operate, but for now, that seems like a good start

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

One Response to What are your “anchor beliefs”?

  1. R. Jenrette says:

    I have always believed that each human is an unique individual who should be evaluated, treated and judged as such. I don’t believe that is a widespread belief, looking at human history up to and including today.
    I refuse to be a stereotype and I refuse to think of others as one. That doesn’t mean that I think that is a safe belief. It might be if more people held it.
    Otherwise I’m pretty much in line with your list.

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