navbar 4Resource papers in action research

Beliefs without reason


This is a resource file which supports the regular public program "areol" (action research and evaluation on line) offered twice a year beginning in mid-February and mid-July.  For details email Bob Dick

... in which the nature of "beliefs without reason" is discussed, and some ways of bringing about change despite these beliefs are briefly examined

A Czech translation is available at

There is also a Bulgarian translation courtesy of Artem Delik




Many of our most dearly-held and vigorously-defended beliefs are held as "beliefs without reason". We don't know why we hold them. We are absolutely convinced that they must be defended at all costs.

Reason and evidence offer no challenge to such beliefs. We know they are true. Our emotional investment in them discourages us from paying attention to contrary evidence.

In short, there is no point in using reason to respond to beliefs without reason. Reason is irrelevant. Other strategies must be used. This document describes some of the strategies. It is based closely on earlier papers of the same name, with some additional material.

 [ index ]

The development of beliefs without reason

"Beliefs without reason" are beliefs which we have been taught to hold without being given adequate reasons. If the teaching is sufficiently strong, the result is to inoculate us against the evidence.

You have probably heard conversations like this between parent and child...

"Don't do that Johnny!"

"Why not, Mummy?"

I expect you have heard the conversation continue. What typically follows is a spurious reason to support the command...

"Because I say so."  [or some other authority figure says so]

"Because I'll punish you if you do it."  [or someone else will]

"Because nice [or intelligent or liked or etc.] people don't do that."

"Because a police-person [or any other bogey person] will get you."

And so on.

Answers like these do not explain the prohibition. This is true even when parents (and others )think that is what they are doing. The effect such answers have is to teach the child to feel bad at certain thoughts, and good at certain other thoughts.

In due course the child internalises the beliefs and feelings. Thereafter (s)he may do what (s)he has been taught to do. We could say that the child has developed a conscience about this matter.

It is important to recognise what is being created by this approach. The child has taken in a mental construct -- a "meme" or belief transmitted from generation to generation.

The mental construct has both belief and feeling components. The beliefs tells us what to do. In other words, they provide the direction. The feelings are what reward us for being "good" or punishes us for being "bad". They provide the energy to act.

Beliefs without associated feelings have less influence on behaviour. A few years ago I heard a doctor talking on talk-back radio about how to quit smoking. One caller asked...

"What is the easiest way you know to give up smoking?"

to which the doctor replied...

"Have a coronary!"

The belief that smoking is harmful may not, of itself, be enough to bring about a change. A coronary attach, on the other hand, demonstrates that mortality is more than an empty concept. The risk of death provides the emotional component. Quitting is then more likely to occur.

The form of conscience mentioned earlier is an echo of the parental voice which told us what to do, or a nonverbal equivalent. The feeling component is provided by the parent's approval or disapproval. It need not be said out loud -- it is often conveyed by the parent's tone of voice, or other non-verbal behaviour.

Note that I am not saying that such beliefs are necessarily wrong. The point is this: beliefs without reason, and with feelings, shape our behaviour.

And here is the important implication... Giving reasons for changing the behaviour may not have any effect.

  [ index ]

The ubiquity of beliefs without reason

Beliefs without reason are an important vehicle of our social inheritance. Many of them are about the social structures and relationships that are important to our culture.

So we have deep-seated assumptions about the way organisations ought to be structured. We may have strong beliefs about the way managers ought to behave, or how much of ourselves we should reveal in various settings or to various people. We may "know" the "right way" for people in various roles should relate to one another...

In fact, social structures such as organisations and families and the like could be said to be mental constructs. They exist more in the minds of people than in the objective world.

Often, then, changes which are adopted for good reason may encounter unreasoned resistance. And "unreasoned" is precisely what it is. People who don't understand the reasons for their resistance invent them, confusing themselves and others, and locking themselves into positions which they then find difficult to abandon.

If such beliefs without reason cannot be challenged by reason or evidence, how then can they be changed? The remainder of this document briefly describes some of the strategies.

  [ index ]

Building relationships

We are more tolerant of "crazy" ideas from friends than from strangers or enemies. Therefore, good relationships foster change.

We often tend to put more effort into retaining relationships with people who do as we wish than with people who don't. But in reality, our relationship with people is often the easiest and most effective vehicle we have for increasing the attention they pay to us.

There is benefit, for example, in

  • challenging a person's actions or the outcomes of those actions, and doing so in such a way that our respect for the person and our relationship is made clear;
  • putting extra effort into maintaining relationships when the relationship is threatened by differences of opinion; and
  • making it clear to people that we value them and the relationship by saying so, instead of hoping that they will pick that up from our non-verbal behaviour.

It is for such reasons as these that an ability to form close and honest relationships is important to those of us who wish to be agents of change. This includes parents, managers, trainers, consultants and educators, amongst others.

  [ index ]

Participation and involvement

Participation and involvement reduce resistance. The more we can involve people in decision-making and planning, the more effort they are likely to expend getting the decision or plan to work.

One tries to make the best decision. Sometimes, however, people will successfully undermine the best decision if it does not accord with their beliefs. They may also contrive to get a second-best decision to work well.

Further, if people are involved in the planning, they may have important information about the situation to contribute. Participative planning is often based on more complete information.

Participation also consumes time. Therefore, you may sometimes have no choice -- you may have to act first, and then inform people what you have done. If this occurs, however, it is pointless to blame people for their resistance. That was inherent in the lack of participation.

Note, too, that people do often tolerate occasional urgent decision. For example, if it is done only occasionally, for good reason, by someone they trust, it may provoke little or no resistance.

I am not saying that participation will always lead to effective decision-making. The processes you use have to be good. And in any event, sometimes people will insist on making decisions which are operationally poor, or expensive, or impractical, and consistent with their beliefs without reason. But when a plan is developed, at least you are not as likely to find it sabotaged.

Knowing who to involve in a change program is often a very important part of managing change.

  [ index ]


Participation can be enhanced by adopting a trial. People may agree willingly to introducing a change for a trial period. It helps if they trust your motives -- they think you will abandon it if it doesn't work. It can also be a good idea to agree on the way in which the trial will be evaluated.

If you adopt a trial, it is likely that within the social system there is someone who is keen to try the change. They are more likely to give the innovation a genuine trial compared to those who are opposed.

  [ index ]

Focussing on outcomes

Sometimes it is possible to reach agreement on outcomes or goals, thus side-stepping the debate about reasons.

For example, suppose a member of your work team is behaving in ways which interfere with team performance because of some belief about what is right. Challenging the behaviour may result only in heightened resistance or righteous indignation, a satisfying feeling.

You might instead describe the outcomes you want. You might explain why those outcomes are desirable. On accasion that may be enough to change the behaviour. In doing this, you leave the decision about behaviour to the person. It is then their responsibility to find a behaviour which gives the required outcomes.

I have heard that some Employee Assistance Schemes have had dramatically good results in remedying drug abuse. Such schemes don't argue with a person about whether or not (s)he has a drug problem. They focus instead on performance (which is accepted by most people as a valid management concern). They promise continued work provided treatment is undertaken and performance remedied.

  [ index ]

Discovering the reasons

Sometimes you can help people to discover the reasons behind their beliefs. Their resistance may arise from a wish to defend the past. Asking people to change can imply a criticism of the way they have behaved in the past.

You need not attack the past. You can instead point out the ways in which the situation has now changed. You can then enlist their help in identifying what should be maintained and what should be changed. This is more likely to involve them in some thought about what is needed.

For example, most people have firm ideas about the "right" way to structure organisations. The traditional right way is appropriate for low to moderate rates of change. It breaks down at faster rates of change. If you give people this reasoning, they may merely fight against it. If you allow them to discover it for themselves, they are much more likely to try to adopt the change.

Presenting evidence, allowing people to check its adequacy for themselves, and then allowing them to draw their own conclusions is a way of doing this. It may be sufficient. However, it is when the evidence is deduced from their own experience (as it might be in an experiential workshop of some form) that the results are most likely to be positive.

This can often be combined effectively with the next strategy, that of honouring the past.

  [ index ]

Honouring the past

Some resistance to change occurs because people believe they are being asked to deny what has been an important part of their history. However, if they can be given an opportunity to examine their past, and the relevance to the present, they may decide voluntarily that some of the past can now be left behind. Particularly if the past is appropriately honoured, it can then be appropriately buried.

There are history-based techniques which work well for intact work teams and other social systems. Tim Dalmau and I have written about them in a number of places; see the description of a "history trip" in Dick and Dalmau (1990).

  [ index ]

Allowing time

Time often allows people to become used to ideas that they resist at first. An idea which is regarded at first as outlandish may come to seem more natural with some more exposure to it.

For example, consider current community attitudes to unmarried couples living together, compared to the previous attitude that it is "living in sin".

Sometimes, therefore, you can reduce the resistance arising from beliefs without reason by giving enough prior notice of a change. This is more likely to work if you give a detailed set of reasons, and if you make it gently clear that the change is going to occur despite whatever "lobbying" takes place in the meantime (and if people think you mean it).

  [ index ]

Changing the behaviour directly

Evidence demonstrates that if you change people's behaviour , their attitudes will later change to maintain consistency. Witness Peter Wilenski's (1986) idea of driving change by introducing legislation.

It is often believed that you change behaviour by first changing attitudes. This is sometimes true. But mostly it is easier to change attitudes by first changing behaviour, than it is to change behaviour by first changing attitudes.

Offering incentives for some behaviour usually leads in time to an increase in that behaviour. Some time later again, the attitudes will be found to have changed too.

Being clear about what is negotiable is important here. In implementing changes which have been decided elsewhere, this is more important than pretending support which isn't real.

Imagine a manager you report to who actually opposes a change from senior management. Consider three alternatives: the person says...

"Of course there are good reasons for this change. The people who made it have much more information than you do. I support it unreservedly."


"Those idiots in head office have done it again. I think it's a crazy idea, but at least we have to make it look as if we've done something about it. So let's clean it up as quickly as we can and get back to important things."


"It's not a change that I would have recommended. But it has to happen, and so I'm determined that it will. Now, how can we make it work so that it serves some purpose?"

Which of these approaches would be most likely to gain your cooperation, and leave intact a trusting relationship with the person concerned?


These strategies are by no means the only ones; but I think they include those with the most potential. Further, they often benefit from being combined with each other. Several of the strategies can be adopted simultaneously as part of a program of strategic change.

  [ index ]


Dick, B and Dalmau, T (1990) To tame a unicorn..: recipes for cultural intervention. Chapel Hill: Interchange.

Wilenski, Peter (1986) Public power and public administration. Hale and Iremonger, Sydney.
(Peter Wilenski was Chair of the Australian Public Service Board during the late 1970s and early 1980s. This was the period when the previously stable public sector first began the shake-up which still continues today.)


An Interchange resource document

Copyright (c) Bob Dick 2002. May be copied provided it is not included in material sold at a profit, and this notice is shown

This document can be cited as follows:

Dick, B.  (2002) Action learning and action research [On line].  Available at

  [ top ]



navbar 4 


Maintained by Bob Dick; this version 1.04w last modified 20131112