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Belief Systems and Assumptions

Belief Systems and Assumptions

Author: Sophia Tutorial

At the end of this tutorial, the learner will understand that people's experiences lead them to make assumptions about how the world "is" (beliefs) and organize these assumptions into systems

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What's Covered

In this lesson, we’ll discuss how our beliefs affect the way we view different situations.

In particular, we’ll focus on:

  1. Beliefs and assumptions
  2. Belief systems
  3. The role of belief systems in conflict


A belief is a person's mental sense of what is true, or right/correct in a given situation. Our beliefs come from our own experiences, such as:

  • The relationships we have
  • The communities we grow up in
  • What we read (e.g. religious texts, history books)
  • What we hear

Someone who grew up in the city may have a different set of experiences that formed his/her beliefs than someone who grew up in the country.

Whether someone grew up rich or poor is another example of an experience that can shape beliefs.

Out of these beliefs come assumptions, or expectations formed as a result of a person's beliefs.

Example Perhaps you're growing up in a family where everybody works hard, but nobody seems to get ahead. No matter how hard you work, it's always going to be a dog-eat-dog world. You feel like you’re not going to make it; you haven’t been able to achieve your goals.

Example Or you may grow up in an environment where you believe that if you study hard, you’ll get a scholarship. Then if you go to college, you’ll be able to get a good job and achieve your dreams.

Based on our beliefs and assumptions of how we think the world works, we have certain expectations. These expectations could be anything from how safe or dangerous we think the world is to how much or how little support we think we’ll receive from our families and friends.

Terms to Know

    • Belief
    • A person’s mental sense of what is true or right/correct in a situation.
    • Assumption
    • An expectation formed from a person’s beliefs.


When we take our assumptions and put them together, they form a belief system, or a combination of beliefs that becomes a model for an aspect of a person's world. This model is the way we make sense of the world, and how it works.

The beliefs that make up a belief system are non-contradictory; they are strung together to form a person’s world model, which might be shared by many other people.


Those who grew up in the United States probably share a belief system that democracy and freedom are important.

Furthermore, those of us who were alive during September 11th may feel that experience has affected our beliefs regarding the vulnerability of our nation.

Although we may share beliefs, each person also takes his/her unique experiences and evaluates them according to his/her own belief system. We all have personal experiences, such as life events and relationships, that form the way we see the world.

Example Someone may experience a personal tragedy when he/she young, such as the death of a parent, health issues, or financial problems. This event is going to influence the person’s belief system about how the world works.

Example On the other hand, someone might have a defining experience that is positive, such as winning a scholarship, traveling abroad, or receiving encouragement from teachers/mentors. This positive experience also influences this person’s belief system.

Term to Know

    • Belief System
    • A combination of beliefs that becomes a model for an aspect of a person’s world.


Because we have personal experiences that shape our belief systems of how the world works, these belief systems are slow to change.

Thus when we have new experiences, we evaluate how they fit into into our individual belief systems by considering the following:

  • Does the experience confirm the belief system?
  • Does the experience challenge the belief system?

Example A person might have a particular belief system about a group of people. This person thinks this group isn’t getting ahead because they're lazy and don’t have the right values. Perhaps the person believes this because of a personal experience that he/she feels confirms that way of thinking.

However, this person might then have an experience that challenges that belief system, causing the person to reconsider: "Before I met someone from this group, I assumed laziness caused the group’s struggles. Now I'm beginning to see that it might not be so black and white. Maybe it’s not an equal playing field out there."

The more experiences we have, the more we're able to either confirm or challenge our belief systems. Yet because belief systems are slow to change, people have the tendency to want to fit certain experiences into their existing belief systems.

Example Someone might believe that women shouldn’t be in construction jobs because they’re not strong enough, or because they’re taking jobs away from men. This person then sees a woman climbing up a building while doing a job. The person might think, "That's an exception. She's doing that, but most women won’t want to do that."

We often don't want to challenge dearly held belief systems; if we've grown up thinking the world works in a particular way, we're going to cling to that and try to consider whatever opposing experiences we have as an exception to the rule.

Therefore, depending on what we do with our experiences, our belief systems have the ability to either:

  • Escalate a conflict
  • De-escalate a conflict

If you insist on making an experience conform to your beliefs, that could escalate a conflict because you aren't as willing to take in new information.

But if you're willing to understand that something might be different than the way you have always thought it would or should work, that could de-escalate the conflict.


In order to consider how strongly we hold belief systems, try imagining a belief system as a string that holds individual beads, or beliefs, together. We keep trying to fit new beliefs onto the string because it’s much easier to do that than to change the belief system.


In this lesson, you learned how our personal experiences shape our beliefs and assumptions about how the world works. These beliefs then come together to form belief systems, which serves as a models for certain aspects of our lives.

You now understand the role that belief systems play in conflict when we are either willing or unwilling to allow an experience to challenge the views we have established.

Good luck!

Source: Adapted from Sophia tutorial by Marlene Johnson.

Terms to Know

An expectation formed from a person's beliefs.


A person's mental sense of what is true or right/correct in a situation.

Belief System

A combination of belief that becomes a model for an aspect of a person's world.