(Warning: somewhat abstruse and probably wrong philosophical argument. Follows up in a more philosophical vein some of the themes in the post on emotion in authoritarian states)
What does it mean to “believe” something? In one traditional model of belief, a person believes X if, on asking herself the question of whether X is true, or is the case, she answers affirmatively. Moreover, in assenting internally to this proposition, she also commits herself to the implications of this proposition for action; to the extent that she rejects some of these implications, she must revise her assent, or else she does not really believe in X. (Let’s put aside the complications introduced by the idea of believing something with some greater or lesser degree of confidence). This model of belief is as old as Plato (see Sophist 263e-264b): to have a doxa (a seems to me condition, translated belief or opinion), is to assent internally to a proposition, and such assent implies commitment to the implications of that proposition, both theoretical and practical, at least to the extent that these implications can be made out. (Sometimes they cannot be made out very far). The key point in this model is that my subjective, first-personal answer to the question of whether X is true has special weight as evidence that I believe (or do not believe) X; and that my holding of that belief (in the sense of answering the question of whether X is true in some particular way, as if the belief were a kind of database record – if present, I believe it, if not, I don’t) is part of the causal pathways that determine my acting in particular ways rather than others. The model thus posits a separation between my private beliefs (which can be identified by asking myself questions, but are not observable to anyone else) and my public behaviour; and indicates that the later is partly caused by the former (insofar as my beliefs and desires jointly determine my actions).
Yet though this model of belief is serviceable in most cases, I’ve come to think it misleads us when trying to understand beliefs in contexts where the consequences of not believing something are either dire or minimal. To see this, consider a slightly different model of belief, one that takes a third-personal rather than first-personal perspective. In this model, to say that A believes X is to say that A acts in ways consistent with X and its implications. If asked whether X is true, A will say yes; if A asks herself whether X is true, she will say yes; if X implies doing F, then A will try to do F. To say that A believes X (with some greater or lesser degree of conviction), then, is to summarize the degree to which A’s actions are consistent with X; and the greater the consistence of this behaviour, the greater the degree of “belief” we are justified in attributing to A. (If I say to myself that I do not believe the rope bridge will hold my weight, and that I do not want to fall down to the raging rapids below, but then nevertheless walk on the bridge, then others can justifiably say that I do not quite believe what I said to myself, even if I said it with conviction and sincerity). My first-personal answer to the question of whether X is true, in other words, has no special weight as evidence that I believe X; what matters is the consistency of a pattern of thought and behaviour (of which my first-personal answer to the question of whether X is true is a part, to be sure). Here belief and action are not causally connected; on the contrary, to say that A believes X is simply to say that A is likely to act in ways consistent with X (including saying to herself that X is true).
Now let’s consider a context in which not acting in (some) ways that are consistent with X produces bad consequences. Consider Vaclav Havel’s famous example of the greengrocer who puts up a sign saying “Workers of the World, Unite.” Not putting up a sign did not necessarily mean horrid punishment in the Czechoslovakia of the 1980s, but it certainly prevented “a quiet life.” Did the greengrocer believe what the sign said? Havel was doubtful; the sign, he thought reasonably enough, was merely a way of declaring his loyalty to the regime, and had little to do with the greengrocer’s private beliefs (my views exactly). But perhaps when the greengrocer asked himself the question of the unity of the workers in the dead of night, he thought yes, that is a good idea; and he certainly acted in some ways that were consistent with the slogan. Does this mean that he believed in the slogan? In the first model, this is the most important piece of evidence; to the extent that the greengrocer said to himself yes, the workers of the world should unite, then he believed in the slogan (even if he was also cowardly and incapable of fully committing himself to the full implications of his belief). In the second model, however, whether or not the greengrocer answered that question to himself in the affirmative is much less important, for it is clear that he will not really act in ways consistent with the slogan absent the constraint. The attribution of belief here implies a prediction as to how the greengrocer would act if the constraint changed (if collective action became possible, for example, or if he had the opportunity to emigrate), but the prediction does not depend on the greengrocer's private answer under constrained conditions to the question of whether the workers of the world should unite. In fact, the attribution of belief here does not say anything about the subjective state of the greengrocer’s mind. In this model, we would only say that the greengrocer really believes in the slogan if, absent the constraint, he continued acting in the same ways as before, or even started proselitizing for the coming revolution, remained in the communist party, etc.
A similar problem arises in contexts where the bad consequences of assenting to some proposition and of behaving in accordance with its implications are minimal. In such circumstances, people often express “beliefs” (i.e., assent to particular statements) that are not particularly predictive of what they will do, or especially well-integrated with their actions. Consider people who, in anonymous telephone polls, give assent to the proposition that “Obama was not born in the USA.” This assent is part of a pattern of action and behaviour that is clearly hostile to Obama (it shows disapproval), but it need not indicate that these people are willing to engage in civil disobedience, or otherwise act in ways that are fully consistent with that proposition. The question of whether they truly believe that Obama was not born in the USA can only be answered by observing the extent to which these people are willing to attain consistency in their pragmatic orientation towards that particular proposition; the true believers are those who make fools of themselves on TV or who bankrupt themselves attempting to “prove” the proposition even in the face of a hostile social reaction.
A lot of public opinion surveys basically measure assent to propositions under conditions where the consequences of assent (or lack of assent) are minimal. This is fine when we are talking about the relationship between such assent and acts with small costs like voting (there’s very little cost to me in harmonizing a stated preference for a candidate and voting for that candidate), but far more problematic when talking about the relationship between stated assent and acts with large costs, or complex actions involving many changes in habitual patterns of behaviour. Consider, for example, the fact that vast majorities of people in countries with all sorts of political systems assent to the proposition that “democracy is the best system of government.” Here’s table one of Inglehart 2003 (ungated earlier version):
Does this mean that “democracy” could be easily sustained in all of these countries, since so many people seem to think it a very good system of government? Does it mean that authoritarian systems in all these countries are in danger? This seems unlikely: measured assent to propositions when such assent has no particular consequences is not predictive of people’s actions under different constraints. I would go so far as to say that most of the people here do not really believe democracy is the best form of government in the third-personal sense explicated above; pressures towards pragmatic consistency with respect to such a vague statement are minimal in the survey context. To be sure, Inglehart finds a correlation between aggregate answers to a number of related questions about the goodness of democracy and the history of democracy in a country, as measured by the Freedom House index - see table 3 – but this correlation says nothing about the consistency of individual answers to the questions Inglehart uses to measure support for democracy, which may in fact be quite inconsistent among themselves and with respect to implied behaviours. Assent to propositions, in other words, is not sufficient evidence of particular present or future commitments to action. But to say that belief in the sense of the second model (as the consistency of a pattern of thought and behaviour) drives behaviour is merely to state a tautology, since belief in the third-personal sense simply is a certain consistency of behaviour.