You’ve probably heard this old joke.
Once upon a time there was a man who was convinced he was dead. After being badgered by his friends, he finally gave in and went to a doctor. The doctor took it upon himself to convince his new patient that he was not, in fact, dead. His approach was to examine the correlation of bleeding and being dead, to reach the conclusion that dead men don’t bleed. After taking the man through several biology and medical textbooks explaining the workings of the human circulatory system, the doctor’s work culminated in a visit to a morgue. The doctor presented showed the man several dead bodies, each of which failed to bleed when cut. In a final session back in the doctor’s office, the doctor said, “So what do you think? In light of the books we’ve read and our visit to the morgue, what do you conclude?”
“Well doc, the evidence is pretty strong. You’ve convinced me. Dead men don’t bleed.”
At that point, the doctor grabs a pin and pokes his patient. Immediately blood wells up on his skin. The patient exclaimed, “What do you know – dead mean DO bleed!”
Those of us who put a value on being and being considered rational like to think that we believe what we believe because of the evidence presented to us. Being rational, as new evidence is presented, we change our beliefs. We think of the patient in the joke as an irrational fellow, one who when confronted with clear and obvious evidence, simply refuses to believe the facts.
The problem is that most all of us have beliefs that are mostly impervious to evidence. Come what may, we will tenaciously and stubbornly hold to these beliefs. Such beliefs may change, but only at a high cost.
In his work with James M. Smith, Jim McClendon calls these tenacious beliefs convictions. They say of convictions:
A conviction [is] a persistent belief such that if X (a person or community) has a conviction it will not easily be relinquished and it cannot be relinquished without making X a significantly different person (or community) than before.
As a “species of belief,” convictions exist alongside many other kinds of belief. Many, if not most of these other beliefs are easily and often amenable to change. Let’s say I believe that avocados are on sale for a quarter at the Dairy Queen at the end of my street. My family (well, some of us) love avocados. DQ is close. A quarter for an avocado is much lower than I’ve seen the price anywhere in years. Acting on this belief, I walk down to the DQ. And what do you know? I discover that the DQ doesn’t even sell avocados! It’s a restaurant, not a grocery store, so it only sells prepared foods. Even though the claim “Avocados are available for a quarter at the DQ” is something I want to believe, something to my advantage given my taste for avocados, I will relinquish this belief fairly easily. It simply isn’t a conviction.
When it comes to “Eating avocados is a good thing for me,” I’m dealing with a belief I’m much less likely to relinquish. I’ve read articles to the effect that avocados are nutritional fruits, so even if I someday encounter another article that says they are really horrible, it will take more convincing to make me change my mind. Even so, my belief about the goodness of avocados, though not so easily relinquished, is not a conviction for me. I like avocados, I happily eat avocados, but they’re just not that important in the overall scheme of life.
The fellow in the joke I began with had a conviction” He was dead. When confronted with a strong theory and practical experience to support that theory, he stuck with his conviction. We may think this fellow is silly (that’s why we call it a joke), but we can learn something important from his story.
First, we all have convictions, deep beliefs that define us as who we are. Some have very few beliefs that are this deep and self-defining, others have several.
Second, we discover that a belief is a conviction only through testing. Apart from testing, we may think a belief is a conviction, but if it is easily relinquished, it doesn’t measure up to the criteria. On the other hand, we may discover through the process of testing that a belief we thought wasn’t very important to us is in fact a conviction.
Thirdly, sometimes our convictions are at variance with others around us. Since convictions are a major part of what defines us, this is only to be expected. If our convictions are at variance with the majority who live around us, we’re likely to generate more push-back (conflict), particularly if our convictions have some form of public manifestation.