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Let us start by clarifying the title in order to understand what is this book is about, in a glimpse. A cognitive explanation of belief change is an attempt to explain how thinking changes. When thinking changes, so too do beliefs, emotional experiences, and behaviours. (p.2) The author proposes a model to explain belief change that is not static or linear but instead interactive and complex, a process structure. (p.61)
This process structure approach is perhaps the first original characteristic of the book, which I consider to be a positive one, considering how the author develops his argument. Taking the risk of being accused of adopting a non-scientific method, by declaring that his intent is not to provide a definition of what belief change is but instead to grasp belief change in its dynamic/ process, Smith proves to be able to develop a sustained rationale on belief change offering many valuable insights throughout the book. Having done extensive research in the sports management area, Smith, (Professor of Management in the Graduate School of Business and Law at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia) became interested in addressing belief from the perspective of cognitive sciences perhaps by observing the key role belief plays in an athlete's performance. Therefore, though the connection between sports management and belief may not seem evident at first, it can be easily discernible.
The book dwells on types of beliefs and mechanisms of change (Ch.1); evolutionary psychology, Darwin and natural selection, providing a very interesting discussion on how natural selection played a role so that concepts became an input in our minds (Ch.2); how beliefs are the mind's output (p.99), connecting thought and emotion, through rituals, agency, memory, identity, emotion and language (Ch.3); how do we become committed to a belief and how a belief is a form of commitment that, the majority of times, stays hidden from our conscious awareness (p.8) (Ch.4) and; what happens when a belief changes (Ch.5).
Smith presents several original arguments and ideas that stretch beyond his specific goal and argumentation (enounced in the title), making it possible to easily adapt to other topics or areas the reader may take interest in. Concerning this, one must highlight two topics that are particularly unusual and original in a cognitive approach to belief. Smith's take on ritual in chapter 3 brings anthropology to the centre of belief, breaking boundaries between disciplines, proving the usefulness and benefits of bravely engaging in a multi-disciplinary strategy. The author weaves cognitive science and anthropology with key cognitive science concepts (agency, memory, identity, emotion and language) bringing them closer to us through the humanization that an anthropological perspective allows. The key topic is rituals, and the powerful distinction between routine and ritual, that judging on its originality can be useful to many researchers working on several different topics ranging from tribe dynamics to obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
The second unusual and original topic, that connects with Smith's previous book, titled Thinking About Religion: Extending the cognitive science of religion (2015), is the use of conversion theory, usually only used in religion but that the author decided to bring here, standing for the replacement of certain sets of beliefs for others, in order to remind is that thinking is fluid and mobile. (p.35, 51)
It is convincing that conversion is a relevant concept to understand belief change, because as Smith often reminds us, the fluidity and mobility of beliefs is relevant to evaluate that belief change takes place both consciously and behind the scenes, and also that the transition between beliefs, or between a set of beliefs and another, is slow and there is no line dividing the moment when a belief changes. Moreover, constantly, just like in a computer's software, new lines of code are being added all the time (p.237)
The option of aiming to provide a process structure, instead of a static or linear model, becomes clearer and clearer as we read through. The essence of belief, is change, therefore, a dynamic model provides a more accurate access to what a belief is. It becomes, thus, relevant, in order to explain belief change, to account for why some belief sets persist while others flutter around only momentarily. (p.5)
Smith's perspective encompasses a reflection of how belief changes in the individual but also addresses how the surrounding environment and culture play a decisive role to promote and sustain change. The book's concepts of memory, perception, language and attention are permeated by an anthropological assessment that brings the main added value to the reading. Questions like: "How do beliefs manifest through values?" and "How do beliefs come to exist in the mind and how are they passed on?" take this book beyond the cognitive realm making it a truly useful tool to those who have as their field of study, psychology, philosophy, anthropology, advertising, management and political science. All will be able to find original and thought-provoking ideas, structured in short sections that prove to be more substantial than it seems at first sight.
© 2017 Diana Soeiro
Diana Soeiro. Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Philosophy at NOVA Institute of Philosophy /IFILNOVA at Universidade Nova de Lisboa (Portugal). Updated information: www.linkedin.com/in/DianaSoeiro
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