Alex Lickerman M.D.

Happiness in this World

Belief Contamination

Why do we react so strongly to beliefs that are different from ours?

Posted Dec 25, 2011


I've long wondered why, even when we posture tolerance on the surface for beliefs different than our own, encountering beliefs that contrast with ours seems to leave us feeling so uncomfortable at a deeper level. We could argue any such difference represents a threat to our ability to believe as we do—and in some cases I'm sure that's true—but our reaction seems to be the same even when we believe as we do with certainty. Perhaps sometimes we lie to ourselves about how certain we are and the niggling doubt that encountering a contradictory belief stirs up in us is enough to remind us of it and rattle us. But sometimes we really are certain we're right and still find ourselves struggling to reconcile the fact that another person doesn't agree with us. I remember well my interaction with an acquaintance years ago who simply held the most bizarre beliefs (in a non-psychotic person) I'd ever encountered. I found myself having to constantly suppress the urge to correct almost every sentence that came out of his mouth.

Not that the point I'm trying to make is that I was necessarily right and he was wrong; it's that I didn't feel threatened by what I considered to be his grossly inaccurate beliefs so much as contaminated by them. I've since found myself wondering if the strange sense of defilement I felt in having my mind invaded by what seemed to me to be a profoundly deluded thought process explains why so many of us prefer to associate with people who think just like we do, who believe just what we do, and feel simultaneously repelled even from people we profess to love when we discover they hold beliefs radically different from our own. (This isn't to say our horror at learning our loved ones believe in God/don't believe in God/are Republicans/are Democrats might not also be fueled by our concern for them. After all, what we believe is critically important, not just because it determines how we think about and treat others, but because it determines how happy we can be.)

Except that I don't believe our negative reaction to finding out that people about whom we care believe differently from us is fueled by a desire to help them become happier. I think, in fact, our negative reaction is far more consistent with a response to a threat. Not a threat to our ability to believe as we do, but rather a threat to our very existence. At some level, coming into contact with contradictory beliefs seems almost to trigger our fight-or-flight response, as if the existence of contradictory beliefs might threaten, if not our lives, our personal way of life.

Perhaps because, in fact, this is often the case. We live in the midst of a sea of other people whose beliefs do impact our lives. It does matter what others around us believe. Which is perhaps why contradictory beliefs create such overreactions in people (far too often tragic overreactions).

As a physician, I've learned to tolerate all sorts of bizarre beliefs and cognitive distortions in my patients. I still feel, to this day, in some sense "contaminated" when I encounter significantly distorted views, as if I need to separate myself in some way from the people who hold them. But I now recognize that true tolerance of beliefs different from my own doesn't require me tolerate the different beliefs themselves but the feelings that encountering such beliefs engenders in me. I believe it's intolerance toward those feelings that leads to radical intolerance of the people who believe them and which is therefore responsible for untold horrors—man's inhumanity to man—throughout human history. This isn't to say we should tolerate delusional or harmful beliefs. To the contrary, where such beliefs cause harm, it's our duty to speak out. But out of compassion, not anger or hatred or fear. We must rein in our emotional reactions and enter into rational dialogue humbly, with a willingness to believe it's our own beliefs that are misguided or don't best accord with available evidence. But in order to do that, we must first find a way to tolerate the negative feelings that encountering different beliefs than our own seems to engender in us all.

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