From The New Yorker, a clear case where behavior and attitudes don’t match up:

The vast majority of white evangelical adolescents—seventy-four per cent—say that they believe in abstaining from sex before marriage….Moreover, among the major religious groups, evangelical virgins are the least likely to anticipate that sex will be pleasurable, and the most likely to believe that having sex will cause their partners to lose respect for them…But…among major religious groups, only black Protestants begin having sex earlier.

So here’s a group that has strong, clear beliefs:  sex before marriage is morally wrong, unpleasant, and shameful.  And yet, on average, kids with “save it until marriage” beliefs become sexually active sooner than most of their peers.

There may not be any broad lesson here.  These are adolescents, after all; and when I was a teenager, I wasn’t particularly rational either. Still, if there’s a broader point, it’s this: often enough, beliefs simply don’t translate into action.

  • Here’s one application of this idea.  Convincing people that you’re right about an issue—say, the scientific consensus about the threat posed by global warming—can seem vitally important, but in the end may be somewhat beside the point.  People may well agree with you, but still not act in accordance with those beliefs.

    That’s more or less what’s happening all around the globe:  the solidifying consensus, both among elites and the public at  large, is that global warming is real.  And yet climate-warming emissions are still distressingly high.  Macroeconomic trends have more effect on emissions than do individual beliefs.

    Perhaps, convincing people about the merit of your position is only a baby step to creating change.  In the long run, you have to move the debate beyond beliefs, and into incentives: lining up the economic and social incentives such that the right choices are the easy, natural ones To do that, we need smart and effective policies.  Appeals to people’s reason may help, but rational belief alone won’t carry the day.