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Explanations > Beliefs > Disbelief

Belief | Disbelief | Changing disbeliefs | So what?


We talk a lot about belief, but what is the opposite? As it turns out, it is really important to understand and manage disbelief when you are seeking to change minds.


Belief is assumed truth. We cannot prove everything so we have to accept truth from others or base it on our limited experiences or reasoning.

But what is on the other side of the coin? What happens when you do not believe?


Disbelief is, on the face of it, the opposite of belief. Yet it is more than this. Disbelief can be more powerful than belief as people who are critical (and often disbelieving) are often seen as more credible and intelligent than those who blindly believe.


Strange as it may sound, disbelief is a form of belief. If I disbelieve in God then I believe that God does not exist. If I disbelieve that you are clever, I believe that you are not clever.

Just as belief is an assumption of truth, disbelief is an assumption of falsehood. It is not just denial of truth but belief in falsehood.

Not believing

When we do not believe something, are we actually disbelieving it? Not really.

Not believing is subtly different from disbelief. If I do not believe you stole from me, it does not mean that I believe you did not steal from me. This is how law works: a person may be found guilty or not guilty, but they are not found innocent. Likewise I may believe or not believe in something, yet still not disbelieve in it.

Not disbelieving

Not disbelieving is also not believing. This is the position of agnostic as opposed to the disbelieving atheist. It is sitting on the fence, not committing one way or another.

Not disbelieving is an example of litotes, where we use a kind of double-negative, such as saying 'I am not unhappy'. This is not the same as saying 'I am happy', because it includes the neutral 'zero' position also.

Changing disbeliefs

As important if not more important, the job of persuasion is less in creating belief and more in removing the blocks of disbelief.

To remove disbelief it is often important to understand the formation of that belief. From this knowledge you can take steps such as:

Source challenge

Challenging the credibility of the source person attacks the disbelief at its source.

Where did this come from... Your mother? So where does her knowledge come from? What qualifies her to be able to say it will never happen?

Rationale challenge

Disproving the logic of the argument shows that the disbeliever has not understood.

You say she could not get there because she does not have the money. That is just non sequitur. There are many ways to travel without money. 


Experience challenge

When a person's disbeliefs appear based on there experiences, try exposing the experience as limited.

So you have found that it does not works for you. At least so far. Does that mean it will never work? What about others? What if I could find someone for whom it does work?

So what?

When making arguments, beware of disbeliefs that may appear more credible being used to undermine you. Of course you can also do this.

When you want to persuade a person of something, create a suspension of disbelief by asking them to be open or otherwise not jump into a critical state without first hearing you out.

In persuading a person to change a belief, you can take a two-step process: first get them to disbelieve what they once believed, then get them to take up the new belief. It can help if the disbelief is opposite to the new belief as this will effectively 'call in' the belief.

See also

Credibility, Argument, Assumption principle


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