Dean Tamar Szabó Gendler Discusses the Power of Our Reflexive ‘Aliefs’

Convening Yale

Better understanding our habitual responses to situations that arouse concern can help us overcome behaviors that serve no rational purpose and can at times be harmful.

That was the message that Tamar Szabó Gendler, dean of the faculty of arts and sciences at Yale University, shared with students in a talk at the Yale School of Management on February 14. The talk explored her work related to beliefs and “aliefs,” a word coined by Gendler for the automatic or habitual attitudes that humans, and some other animals, possess.

While beliefs are based on rational, or empirical, evidence, aliefs are a product of social conditioning and, in some instances, protective instinct. Aliefs, Gendler said, give rise to associative responses that sometimes help, and other times may hinder, individuals as well as society at large.

Gendler, who is also the Vincent J. Scully Professor of Philosophy and professor of psychology and cognitive science, spoke as part of Convening Yale, a lecture series that brings researchers from across the university to share their work with Yale SOM students.

“The alief system is very powerful,” Gendler said. “We all have reactive systems coded to respond to surface stimuli, so that we can build reactions in real time. It’s the automatic associative part of yourself.”

But while aliefs often serve useful purposes for humans, problems arise when certain associations, primed by aliefs, produce unintended harm, such as in the case with aversive racism and implicit bias. That’s why adopting the concept of aliefs into our conceptual framework can be helpful, Gendler said. “Aliefs impact a huge range of issues which are of great political significance in our contemporary conversations,” she explained.

Gendler’s current research involves how people may be able to regulate aliefs. Because automatic responses are a crucial component of the human cognitive system, understanding how to cultivate helpful responses while mitigating unhelpful responses is a vital element of long-term well-being. “Realizing that the same underlying mechanism is at play is the first step,” Gendler said.

About the Event

Please join us on Wednesday, February 14 for Convening Yale with Tamar Szabó Gendler, dean of the faculty of arts and sciences. Dean Gendler is also the Vincent J. Scully Professor of Philosophy and professor of psychology and cognitive science. Her talk will explore her work related to alief and belief.

An alief is an automatic or habitual belief-like attitude that adduces a predictable associative response. In this talk, Gendler will discuss some of the benefits of adopting this notion into our conceptual framework.

Convening Yale presents talks by faculty and leaders from throughout Yale University, who share their research and expertise and help students broaden their understanding of an increasingly complex world. The Convening Yale series is made possible through the generous support of the Robert J. Silver ’50 Fund for Innovation in Management Education.