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April 11, 2011 | by  | in Features |
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I Think, Therefore I Am – Or Do I?

Our personal beliefs play a large part in shaping our decisions and guiding us through life. But how many of our personal beliefs are really our own? Salient chatted with Dr Marc Wilson about the factors which influence our political and religious beliefs.

Do parents play a crucial role in determining the political/religious beliefs of their children?

Your parents don’t necessarily try to convince you that you should vote, for example, Labour. But they do make subtle, indirect influences, such as when your father puts down the paper, has his head in his hands and says “I blame the National party.” Likewise, if you grow up in a household which has a picture of Rob Muldoon on the back of the toilet door and darts next to the toilet roll, then you’re probably going to grow up thinking that Rob Muldoon is the spawn of Satan. In terms of religion, many people who have religious parents have been brought up in a particular religious framework. In that regard, our parents are more likely to influence us religiously than they are politically, although the two are probably interconnected.

What effect does education, especially tertiary education, have on our beliefs?

It depends on what you’re studying. For example if you study law and you’re interested in prosecutorial law then you’re probably going to end up more politically conservative at the other end. One of the things that people look forward to when they go to university is having a chance to find out stuff from people who come from very different backgrounds to themselves. Some of my early research looked at social network effects. That is, the effect of the beliefs of the people around us. Research has long shown that we tend to like people who think like us and are usually repulsed from people who are very different to us. We tend to surround ourselves with people who like the same things as us anyway and those people then serve to insulate us from other opinions.

If we surround ourselves with like minded people, are we ever likely to question our beliefs?

You need to think about these things in order to change, you could be a person whose motivation to religion is driven by what’s called ‘quest’—wanting to find the answers to the big questions. The opposite of quest is dogmatism. People who are dogmatic are less likely to change. The other possibility is being exposed to an alternative message. That’s why things like university and the transition to university are really important. It’s no surprise that the vast amount of recruitments by cult-like groups occur in a context that’s exactly like that of university, where people are experiencing a change.

What about political/religious advertising? Does it influence us to the extent that it can tell us what to think or believe?

With politics, advertising, reading a newspaper or watching the news doesn’t so much tell you what to believe as tell you what to think about. So it’s really important for agenda setting. The incumbent political party has a huge amount of power, dictating what the messages that go out to the electorate are about. What you actually see and whether you believe them and go along with them is another matter. In terms of religion, we are a relatively secular society. Maybe a third of New Zealanders would consider themselves to be church-goers. That includes people who go only on special occasions. So we don’t see quite as much advertising with religion as it were.

There is some literature out there which suggests that aversion to change is an inherent part of human nature. Is this really the case?

That depends on the individual. Some people are change averse and therefore pro status quo, they feel very uncomfortable when the status quo is threatened, whereas some people are much happier with change—you’ve got the quest versus dogmatic. That’s one of the underlying dimensions that define who you vote for and whether you are religious and the type of religious orientation that you adopt.

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