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Meta-belief and Self-deception in Academics by Brian W. in Guest Articles

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Meta-beliefs are beliefs about the beliefs of others. We all engage in this sort of mind-reading as a means of social navigation in determining what might be the best way to address a group of colleagues, whether to even bother talking with someone about politics or religion, or whether to make small talk with a stranger. The academic world is a highly competitive and social enterprise in which meta-beliefs can take on the dimension of a social navigation tool, but as a means of self-deception as well.

How do academics use meta-belief?

Academic career advancement relies generally on attribution, publication and sometimes teaching skills. In order to succeed in these areas, academics must be keenly aware of how their work is perceived by others and must have the self-confidence to argue for their cause. Academics are frequently found to be self-aggrandizing, political and egotistical because of the necessity of getting their work recognized. It would be nice to believe that merit is the only basis for reward, but oftentimes perception, as the saying goes, is everything. Thus academics are guided not just by their work, but also how they believe their colleagues will perceive their work. Forming meta-beliefs about colleague political orientation, religious beliefs and also more mundane everyday beliefs, can influence behavior and politics in the academic world.

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What are the effects?

There are both positive and negative effects of meta-belief in academics that can influence, for example, success in obtaining research funds, scientific discoveries, or a quality teaching assignment. Meta-beliefs tend to be positive when they are accurate and fit in with the overall dynamic of what is really happening. If a professor in an academic department believes the department head believes in faculty having strong teaching skills, and this is accurate, then obviously this can be good for one’s career. Another example might be a meta-belief that government bureaucrats believe in giving research funds only to those with large volumes of data. If this is true, then that belief will be helpful in obtaining research funds. On the other hand some of the most negative aspects of a career academic life can result from the self-deception that often comes with forming meta-beliefs. Misperceiving the beliefs of others can lead to poor social navigation and career hindrances along the way.

Self-deception in the academic world.

Robert Trivers (a well-known evolutionary biologist) who recently wrote a book on the evolution of self-deception (The Folly of Fools) states clearly how self-deception is an obvious part of academic life. He states: “In one survey, 94 percent (of academics) placed themselves in the top half of their profession. I plead guilty. I could be tied down to a bed in a back ward of some hospital and believe I am still outperforming half of my colleagues.” This type of self-deception of academics about their beliefs and others has led many down many perilous pathways in the past. For example Einstein’s latter career was ensconced in the self-deceptive meta-belief that his colleagues believed incorrectly in random physical events which modern quantum mechanics has demonstrated to be possible. More recently it can be seen in Lynn Margulis’ (the now deceased evolutionary biologist) insistence that other scientists were wrong in their belief that the HIV virus is the cause of AIDS. Even on a smaller scale of everyday practice, self-deception, while feeding the academic ego, can lead to inaccurate meta-beliefs with consequences for both the career academics who have them and also the quality of the work coming from academic institutions.

Brian W.
Guest Blogger
Dragon Intuitive

Brian W. is a teacher, researcher, and freelance author for resources including Degree Jungle. He has spent many years in a variety of academic institutions forming his own beliefs and meta-beliefs, while at the same time attempting to navigate its frequently treacherous waters.

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