Beliefs: Twelve Myths You'll Be Relieved to Debunk
How to pick better beliefs and feel better about the beliefs you've picked.
Posted Jun 20, 2017
If you’re unhappy, just change your beliefs. So goes a hugely popular bit of advice in psychological and spiritual circles these days. It makes some sense, though not as much as touted. It suggests that beliefs are like consumer products. If you’re dissatisfied with the product, just swap it out for an upgrade. Simple.
Not that simple. Here are twelve assumptions about belief worth rethinking:
- You can’t believe just anything: You can claim to, but that doesn’t mean you do. Beliefs aren’t product you can trade at will; they’re products of experience. If your friend keeps showing up late, you’re going to believe that he will in the future also. You can try to convince yourself he won’t but that won’t convince your gut. Your gut keeps fairly accurate track of what’s likely to happen and you can’t just override it with a pep talk. Keep this in mind next time someone says “don’t worry,” or “don’t be upset,” as though you can just switch beliefs like TV channels. It’s a sign of disrespect to say such things. It means the person wishes you were like a machine they could control.
- Beliefs are not like noses: Your nose—you only have one and you have it with you all the time, whether you’re aware of it or not. Beliefs aren’t like that. When you say that you believe something, it doesn’t mean you believe it all the time or that you have only that one belief. You might well harbor an opposite belief. “I believe in God” doesn’t mean you always believe in Him, or that you’re 100 percent confident that He exists. That a belief can fade in and out helps explain our flexibility and hypocrisy, the flexibility that enables us to say “I absolutely love you,” meaning “I believe we’re great together,” when you don’t always feel that way, and the hypocrisy that follows from that, the ability to claim you believe something that you don’t act on. Often, when someone declares their belief as though it were as plain as the nose on their face, they’re just trying to discourage you from challenging them, as though pledging that they won’t be influenced by you any more than if you were trying to get them to change their nose. Don’t buy it. A person will often reject your criticism outright and still learn from it.
- Our beliefs? We don’t know the half of them: You ask a friend “Do you really believe that you’re so special?” The friend cares about your opinion enough to go spelunking in the caves of his mind. He finds no belief like that and reports back “Of course not! I know I’m not special!” But how thoroughly did your friend look? In our search for what we believe, we’re much more likely to find beliefs that make us feel good about ourselves and overlook our beliefs that are disappointing. Let this be a reason to stop interrogating yourself relentlessly about your own inconsistencies. You have unconscious inconsistent beliefs, but then so does everyone.
- You can’t doubt all of your beliefs: The philosopher Rene Descartes committed to doubt all of his beliefs. The philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce countered that you can’t since most of our beliefs are not conscious thoughts but unconscious assumptions expressed through our habits. You can’t doubt what you don’t realize that you believe. You can claim that you’re completely open-minded, ready to doubt any of your beliefs but you can’t live up to that claim. You can, therefore, afford to relax about not knowing your mind in its entirety.
- Put your (time, work and) money where your mouth is: Though we may claim we merely seek true beliefs, that’s not what we do. We don’t evaluate beliefs strictly on their merits. Some beliefs are convenient; other beliefs are costly. We shop among beliefs with attention to what they’ll do to our to-do lists. Beliefs can free you up or bog you down. Accepting some inconvenient truth is like admitting you have a drinking problem, a crack in your house’s foundation, or a major research assignment you forgot about. Embracing an inconvenient belief however true is like accepting a huge load of unexpected work dumped onto your to-do list. No wonder people are often so reluctant to admit there are problems with their beliefs. Swapping them out for more accurate beliefs is personally costly to them. When you're arguing with someone who’s remarkably unreceptive, remember his to-do list. It may not be that he’s stubborn or stupid so much as he’s trying to keep his work to a minimum.
- Loyalty is bias: Loyalty to our beliefs sounds like a virtue like loyalty to a spouse. With both, it’s deemed a good thing that you overlook the costs and celebrate the benefits. Great husbands say, “Well, of course, she’s not perfect. Neither am I. But we don’t focus on our incompatibilities. We focus on what works, and that’s how we make it work!” We express similar loyalty to our beliefs, emphasizing what’s great about them and ignoring what isn’t. That’s loyalty, steadfast commitment, dedication, sticking to your guns, which all sound like good things. But it’s also being biased, stubborn, pigheaded, closed-minded, unwilling or unable to evaluate beliefs neutrally, which sounds like a bad thing. When you find yourself wondering how people fail to see that they’re beliefs are flawed, there’s your answer. Loyalty to beliefs, like loyalty to a marriage encourages cultivation of bias, giving distorted weight to whatever and whomever you’re loyal to. That’s the very same distortion that we find so frustrating when we’re trying to get people to consider alternative beliefs. How then should we explain our double standard whereby biased loyalty is a great and a terrible thing? By making an often-overlooked distinction between how to optimize in two different kinds of circumstances: Deciding vs. Decided. When you're deciding whether to make a big commitment, it’s best to be as open and neutral as possible. Once you’ve decided what to believe, you can’t afford to be neutral. You have to reinforce your commitment by biasing yourself in favor of it. This parallels what happens in any big personal commitment. You better think neutrally about it before you commit. But once you’ve committed you better stay committed. Once you’re married (to a belief or person) don’t keep asking yourself “Can I make this marriage work?” Ask only “how can I make it work?” This framing reveals a big problem with how we commit to beliefs. We rarely do it with much neutrality. We slip, fall, leap or dive impulsively into big beliefs, not the way you’d want to fall into a marriage. If you’ve done that, you’re not alone.
- It’s easier to be unfaithful to a belief than to a spouse: If you’re caught cheating on a spouse you will pay. Dearly. If you’re caught cheating on a belief, not so much. We cut each other slack on not walking our talk. Why? Perhaps in part because people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. Declared beliefs serve all sorts of functions. Sometimes they’re pledges to act a certain way, but they often just feel good or come in handy here and there, for example when we say “I believe one should never interrupt” to get someone to stop talking, not that we really believe interrupting is always wrong. It would be a very different world if we married beliefs the way we marry partners with all the commitment, pledges and promises that marriage involves.
- Picking beliefs like picking tunes: You know that proud self-satisfied look on someone’s face when they’re declaring their beliefs? They look as satisfied as people eating French fries after a ten-mile hike. They’re savoring their beliefs, loving the sound of their pronouncements as they trip off their tongues. Mouthing our strong beliefs can be a sensual pleasure. This sensuality hints at how we pick our beliefs. We rarely come by them through careful shopping, weighing the pros and cons of alternative belief-products. Rather, we usually pick our beliefs the way we pick the music we play through our earbuds. The lyrics and their implications are secondary. We may not even know the lyrics any more than many Bible thumpers know the Bible.* Whether picking tunes or beliefs, we pick by feel and especially by how they make us feel about ourselves when we hum along. If you’ve done that and regret it, again you’re not alone. Most heartfelt beliefs are adopted because of how they feel, not how credible they are.
- The most popular tunes: Do beliefs change history? Yes, though mostly beliefs that give people a reason to feel special, uplifted above the messy masses. Again, there’s a parallel to popular music, a whole lot of it is the chant and rant of exceptionalists, the hurt love song of the virtuously devoted lover jilted by a jerk, the proud music of the righteous standing up for what’s true, the rage against the machine one pretends to have no part of, the soul searching ballad of the exceptionally deep and sensitive romantic, the winner partying in the winner’s circle, the self-glorifying rap. These tunes are what tend to resonate with us, and the same is so for popular beliefs throughout history.
- We trust self-reporting more than it deserves: “Trust but verify” sounds good, but it overlooks the cost of verification. We take people at their word on what they believe because it’s way more convenient than monitoring their behavior. Talk is cheap. Believing the talk is cheap too when compared to the cost of monitoring whether people walk their talk.
- Kindness or laziness?: Giving people the benefit of the doubt isn’t just kind, it’s often lazy: We hear about fascist sympathizers but not fascist empathizers, people who, early in a fascist’s rise, show compassion and respect for him because it would be impolite to do otherwise. Is that civility? Decency? Sometimes, but often it’s a lazy way to avoid an inconvenient truth that would add to our to-do lists the arduous, risky work of resisting the fascists.
- “Don’t tell me what I believe!”: Who has final authority on what someone believes? You might think it’s the believer, but how do you square that with the evidence that people often misreport their beliefs, for example, the person who acts racist but denies believing in racism? The truth is that no one is the authority on what anyone believes. We have no objective test of beliefs or motivations. We can only make guesses about what people believe. That might seem like a reason to not make guesses, but we can’t do that. Though psychologizing people is often regarded as an impolite imposition, there’s no alternative. To interact successfully with people, you have to guess at what makes them tick. So you’ll make guesses about what they believe, just as you make guesses about what you believe.