I presented the paper at the 2010 Pacific SWIP conference and substantially revised it after receiving some valuable feedback. You can find the latest version of the paper here. Feel free to leave comments and/or suggestions!
Marriage is an almost universal institution. In the US, 90% of the population has been married at some point in their lives (U.S. Census Bureau 2009). Universal institutions are not often questioned since universality is assumed to reflect a social benefit (Wasserstrom 1977). In the case of marriage, this assumption has been called into doubt by some scholars, yet the institution remains strong. The political critiques do not gain ground because they do not address deeply held beliefs. To understand why marriage remains such a strongly valued institution, we need to look beyond a political critique to the cognitive underpinnings. Social change depends on transforming ingrained attitudes that uphold social institutions. In this paper, I argue that changing institutions with undesirable social consequences, such as marriage, requires changing the underlying belief packages, which combine conceptual and nonconceptual content and explain the research from psychology better than any single notion of a belief-like mental state. They also help us clarify why institutional change is so difficult from a cognitive science perspective in addition to the political perspective. If we want to lessen the importance of social institutions, we need to work on the political as well as the cognitive level.