According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the etymological roots of “belief” can be traced back to Middle English from Old English. Appearing around the late 12th century, “belief” used to refer to things held to be true due to religious doctrine, while “faith” referred to loyalty or allegiance to a person based on duty. Faith began to take on a religious connotation in the 14th century, and by the 16th century, the concept of “belief” was limited to our modern day, generalized definition: the mental acceptance of something as true (Belief, 2012).

Conceptualizing Beliefs

Furinghetti and Pehknonen (2002) contend that conceptualizing or defining belief can be difficult due to the inability to clarify the relations between belief, knowledge, and other related concepts. Thus, the term belief is sometimes left undefined (e.g., Cooney, Shealy, & Arvold, 1998), or researchers give their own definitions of the term (e.g., Bassarear, 1989). Descriptions of belief are often constructed by contrasting belief with other concepts, such as attitude, values, judgment, ideology, etc. (Pajares, 1992).

Definitions of Beliefs

Scholars from various fields have defined belief differently, depending on the context by which it is used. Brown and Cooney (1982) defined beliefs as dispositions to action and major determinants of behavior. Pajares (1992) proposed definitions of belief and cited Abelson (1979), who defined beliefs “in terms of people manipulating knowledge for a particular purpose or under a necessary circumstance (p. 313). Sigel (1985) defined beliefs as “mental constructions of experience, often condensed and integrated into schemata or concepts that are held to be true and that guide behavior” (p. 313).

Scholars in social science fields have more or less agreed upon a commonly acknowledged definition of beliefs: “beliefs are thought of as psychologically held understandings, premises, or propositions about the world that are felt to be true” (Richardson, 1996, p.103).

Types of Beliefs

Renowned social psychologist Milton Rokeach (1972), identified three different types of beliefs:
  • Descriptive/existential beliefs are verifiable statements about people, objects, and situations. Like factual statements, descriptive beliefs are objective statements that, in principle, can be shown to be true or false; correct or incorrect; valid or invalid (e.g., I believe Mars is a planet).
  • Prescriptive/exhortatory beliefs are statements about the appropriateness of a position or an activity in a given situation, advocated as desirable or undesirable (e.g., I believe it is desirable for citizens to vote in elections).
  • Evaluative beliefs are statements that reflect a general assessment of an attitude object. Evaluative beliefs can be stated as good or bad (e.g., I believe Colgate toothpaste is the best).

Components of Beliefs

Rokeach (1972) also suggested that beliefs have three specific components:
  • A behavioral component of a belief that leads to/influences action when triggered.
  • An affective component of a belief that is capable of arousing affect of fluctuating intensity centering on the object of belief, taking a positive or negative position in an argument.
  • A cognitive component of a belief that represents an individual’s knowledge of what is true or false.

Knowledge and Beliefs

Scholars have attempted to distinguish knowledge from beliefs. According to Calderhead (1996), beliefs commonly refer to “suppositions, commitments, and ideologies” while knowledge refers to “factual propositions and the understandings that inform skillful action” (p. 715).

The following table describing the distinctions between knowledge and beliefs is offered by Savasci-Acikalin (2009):

Refer to suppositions, commitments, and ideologies
Refers to factual propositions and the understandings that inform skillful action
Do not require a truth condition
Must satisfy “truth condition”
Based on evaluation judgment
Based on objective fact
Cannot be evaluated
Can be evaluated or judged
Episodically-stored material influenced by personal experiences or cultural and institutional sources
Stored in semantic networks
Often changes

Beliefs and Theory

Beliefs are components/variables/entities within a variety of theories utilized by scholars in communication studies and other related disciplines.

The following is not an exhaustive list of relevant theories, but beliefs play some kind of role in informing or describing ideas pertaining to the theories listed below:
  • Contagion Theories (Monge & Contractor, 2003; Rice & Aydin, 1991)
  • Cognitive Dissonance Theory (Festinger, 1957)
  • Expectancy Value Model (Fishbein, 1967; Fishbein, 1968; Fishbein, 1974; Palmgreen, 1984)
  • Network Theory and Analysis (Barnes, 1954; Rogers & Kincaid, 1981)
  • Theory of Reasoned Action/ Theory of Planned Behavior (Fishbein & Ajzen, 1975)
  • Agenda Setting Theory (McCombs & Shaw, 1972)
  • Cultivation Theory (Hawkins & Pingree, 1983)
  • Health Belief Model (Rosentock, Strecher, & Becker, 1966)

Note: Distinctions between attitudes, beliefs, values, and opinions can be found on the attitude page.

-Nathan McCullough 2012

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