Do You Believe You Have a Bright Outlook?
Why do you need to understand beliefs to have a bright outlook? What is a belief? What role do beliefs serve? How are beliefs and values related? What happens when our personal beliefs conflict with each other? How do our beliefs affect the quality of our experiences? How do they determine whether we get what we want? Why do we cling to certain beliefs? Let's discuss these questions.
What is a belief?
Based on the Oxford definition, a belief is:
- An acceptance that something is true or that it exists
- It could be a firmly held opinion, a conviction, a religious belief
- Trust, faith, or confidence in someone or something
I like this well-thought-out description of beliefs:
Beliefs are our brain’s way of making sense of and navigating our complex world. They are mental representations of the ways our brains expect things in our environment to behave, and how things should be related to each other—the patterns our brain expects the world to conform to. Beliefs are templates for efficient learning and are often essential for survival.Ralph Lewis M.D., What Actually Is a Belief? And Why Is It So Hard to Change? Posted Oct 07, 2018
I should clarify the difference between beliefs in general and religious beliefs. While religious beliefs can sometimes lead to controversy, they are a subset of the broader topic. Whether we consider ourselves religious or not, we all approach the world based on our beliefs. A very small percentage of most peoples' beliefs would be considered religious in nature. So while most of this article could apply to religious beliefs, they are not the core topic.
What role do beliefs serve?
Beliefs enable us to have "a stable, familiar approach to processing information about our world." Would you agree this is highly desirable?
Sometimes beliefs can be summarized by statements, such as:
- "The sun will rise tomorrow."
- "Santa Claus is real."
- "I'm not good at math."
The above-mentioned Psychology Today article continues by pointing out that beliefs are the result of taking what we observe about the world and distilling it into actionable information. To do this we make extrapolations. We make assumptions. We jump to conclusions. We sometimes see patterns where there are none. We prefer familiar conclusions over unfamiliar ones. "It’s a trade-off between efficiency and accuracy."
Beliefs have also been described as mental maps or mental models. We may believe the world works a certain way. If, for example, I've seen ten coin tosses in a row and they've all come up heads, my expectation for the eleventh coin toss will depend on my beliefs about probabilities. If my mental map is based on intuition, I might assume a high probability of seeing tails. Many people believe that a string of unlikely possibilities strongly predicts a pattern. If I've been educated about this based on science, I'll conclude that the probability of seeing heads on the 11th toss is 50%. And I'll conclude that the string of ten heads is a happy fluke, nothing more. Whether I strongly favor tails or not, my prediction is a belief. It reflects my view of the world based on my personal experiences.
Unless the coin toss above is a high-stakes gamble, my belief may have no measurable effect on my life. But as I've mentioned, every action we take or avoid taking is motivated by what goes on in our brain.
Going right along with what I wrote in that article, in his book Awaken The Giant Within, author Tony Robbins says:
It’s not actual pain that drives us, but our fear that something will lead to pain. And it’s not actual pleasure that drives us, but our belief— our sense of certainty— that somehow taking a certain action will lead to pleasure. We’re not driven by the reality, but by our perception of reality.
It’s not the events of our lives that shape us, but our beliefs as to what those events mean.
We need to remember that most of our beliefs are generalizations about our past, based on our interpretations of painful and pleasurable experiences.
Read more about how our beliefs affect our motivation below.
Unfortunately, these facts about how our beliefs form tell us that we can never be 100% sure of everything we believe. We may have a high degree of confidence about some of our beliefs, but it would be the height of hubris to think we know everything. There is good news: Many, if not most, or our mistaken beliefs arise from a limited number of thinking errors and biases that have been carefully analyzed by science. So it is possible for us to become more skilled in recognizing the possibility that something we believe may be in error. Who has a brighter outlook? Someone who thinks they are always right or someone who has the ability to self-correct, to constantly improve the relationship of their mental map of the world to reality? I hope the answer is obvious. In the future, this website will feature articles about common thinking errors and biases that will help you keep your mental map up-to-date.
Consider these words that can describe a range of beliefs, from strongly negative to strongly positive:
- Pretty sure
There is a lot of room for further nuance here but I think this is enough to make the point. If we believe an assertion to be completely wrong we'll deny it. If we think it might be wrong we'll doubt it. Maybe it seems to be right but we have a suspicion that it's wrong. Assumption is right in the middle. Assumption gets a bad reputation, but in reality, we generally accept without question what we learn about the world. That is unless we have reason to doubt or suspect the source we learn it from.
Then there's the gradient of positive belief. We assume lots of things but occasionally something we believe is questioned. At that point we have to ask ourselves, have I just assumed this to be true? How much trust do I have that it is true? Am I pretty sure? Am I convinced? I also included persuasion in between because of the implication of emotion in persuasion. We feel confident that it's true. Maybe we have a strong positive feeling about the person who gave us the information.
At the upper end of positive belief, we go from pretty sure to completely convinced. If I'm pretty sure something is true, I have some reasons in my mind or in the back of my mind that I could give to support its veracity. But there's also the lingering feeling that there might be something I hadn't considered about it that might disprove it. If I'm convinced, on the other hand, I feel certain that I could provide logical reasons why it's true. I feel that I've thoroughly considered the subject and can't imagine anything that would disprove it.
There's even a higher degree of belief that I can't come up with a word for but it's closely connected with conviction. This degree of belief is represented by the small percentage but still impressive number of people in history who have put their life on the line for their beliefs. Not everyone has beliefs so strong they would be willing to risk or sacrifice their life for them. But the fact that such people exists shows how powerful beliefs can be.
Why is it important to understand beliefs? Because beliefs ultimately determine our actions. If we believe murder is wrong, we'll avoid it. Without that belief we could end up behind bars or worse. George Maddox, who invested his life savings in Enron corporation, believed he was making a wise choice. That belief cost him dearly. A belief can cost us our life, or a belief might save us from a fate worse than death.
More commonly, our beliefs help us maintain stable interactions with the world around us. Belief in gravity keeps us from driving off a cliff. A belief that people are generally trustworthy helps us maintain healthy relationships with others. A belief that we shouldn't trust just anyone will help us avoid being taken advantage of.
Our beliefs also help us maintain a consistent self-image. When our actions align with our beliefs we avoid self-doubt and a crisis of conscience. To admit that we are fundamentally wrong would disrupt both our internal self-confidence and our relationships with others.
By guiding our actions, our beliefs become the blueprint for the lives we build. The choices we make, the way we spend our time and money, are all subject to our beliefs. In so doing we have a lot at stake if our beliefs were to change. We could be faced with intolerable personal losses.
Why do we cling to certain beliefs?
Beliefs are assumptions we hold to be true. If we discovered they weren't true, we would happily change them, right? If you believed fortune cookies were invented in China and someone informed you they were not, would you cling tightly to your original belief? Probably not. We like to think we have the correct view of things. But I don't need to tell you that corrections to our beliefs aren't always welcome.
As I mentioned above, our beliefs and the degree of confidence we have in them are often associated with our relationships to others who hold such beliefs.
“For some of our most important beliefs, we have no evidence at all, except that people we love and trust hold these beliefs. Considering how little we know, the confidence we have in our beliefs is preposterous—and it is also essential.2002 Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman
This applies not just to our words, but also to our thoughts, which might seem odd. Why can’t we be honest with ourselves? The answer is that our thoughts aren’t as private as we imagine. In many ways, conscious thought is a rehearsal of what we’re ready to say to others.
When we take a pragmatic, outcome-oriented stance to a given domain, we tend to react more dispassionately to new information. We do this every day in most areas of our lives, like when we buy groceries, pack for a vacation, or plan a birthday party. In these practical domains, we feel much less pride in what we believe, anger when our beliefs are challenged, or shame in changing our minds in response to new information. However, when our beliefs serve non-pragmatic functions, emotions tend to be useful to protect them from criticism.The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life By Kevin Simler, Robin Hanson
Kevin Simler, co-author of The Elephant in the Brain, quoted above, wrote a thought-provoking article, Crony Beliefs, based on a thought experiment. He describes a company that hires both qualified employees and "cronies," employees hired based on their connections rather than their qualifications. He uses this to illustrate our tendency to believe things based, not on the evidence that they are true, but on the social benefits of holding and expressing such beliefs.
For the most part, we imagine we have a firm grip on reality; we don't lie awake at night fearing that we're massively deluded.
The article is very thought-provoking and I hope it gets you thinking, as it did me, about which beliefs I may have that are "cronies" rather than "merit beliefs."
Both contribute to our bottom line — survival and reproduction — but they do so in different ways: merit beliefs by helping us navigate the world, crony beliefs by helping us look good.
He suggests ways to identify "crony beliefs":
- We can't act on it, or the actions won't provide us direct material benefits.
- We give it the benefit of the doubt. "Blind faith — religious, political, or otherwise — is simply "benefit of the doubt" taken to its logical extreme."
- If we have a strong urge to talk about it, it's probably a crony.
- If we have more confidence in it than the evidence merits - "Crony beliefs will typically provide more social value the more confident we seem in them."
- If we aren't willing to bet on it, we likely know deep down that it isn't true.
- "Perhaps the biggest hallmark of epistemic cronyism is exhibiting strong emotions, as when we feel proud of a belief, anguish over changing our minds, or anger at being challenged or criticized."
He goes on to apply this reasoning to show that the following types of beliefs are most likely to be cronies:
- Political beliefs
- Religious beliefs
- Ethical beliefs
- Beliefs about the self
- Beliefs about identity groups
How are beliefs and values related?
It's relatively easy to define beliefs. In addition to the definitions above, we can add a few more statements:
- Beliefs are assumptions we hold to be true
- Beliefs arise from learned experiences
It's not as easy to define values: I've already referenced values three times in my articles without providing a definition. Values and beliefs are closely related, so this is a good opportunity to do so.
Here are some ways to define values:
- Values are ideas that we hold to be important
- We value what we need - whatever is important to us or missing from our lives
- Values arise from the experience of being human
Beliefs and values:
- Both influence our behavior and our views of right and wrong
- Both motivate our actions and help us make decisions
- Beliefs and values determine our attitudes and opinions
Even the experts have a difficult time separating the two concepts. According to Shalom H Schwartz who developed the Schwartz Theory of Basic Values, "Values are one important, especially central component of our self and personality, distinct from attitudes, beliefs, norms, and traits. Values are critical motivators of behaviors and attitudes."Schwartz, S. H. (2012). An Overview of the Schwartz Theory of Basic Values. Online Readings in Psychology and Culture, 2(1). https://doi.org/10.9707/2307-0919.1116
But in the same paper, he states, "Values are beliefs." At the present time, I consider Schwartz to the leading scientific expert on values, so I find this apparent contradiction intriguing. What he says next is illuminating:
Values are beliefs linked inextricably to affect. When values are activated, they become infused with feeling. People for whom independence is an important value become aroused if their independence is threatened, despair when they are helpless to protect it, and are happy when they can enjoy it.
Groups everywhere develop practices, symbols, ideas, and beliefs that represent their shared experience and fate. These become sanctioned as valued group customs and traditions. They symbolize the group's solidarity, express its unique worth, and contribute to its survival. They often take the form of religious rites, beliefs, and norms of behavior. An Overview of the Schwartz Theory of Basic Values
Doesn't that sound a lot like the "crony beliefs" described by Simler? Both beliefs and values can have strong social and emotional significance. They affect the way we behave, and can even restrict our freedom.
What if our beliefs conflict with each other?
According to Upton Sinclair, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!”
The above quote illustrates a concept known as cognitive dissonance.
Cognitive dissonance occurs when a person holds contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values, and is typically experienced as psychological stress when they participate in an action that goes against one or more of them.
There are several "paradigms" of cognitive-dissonance theory, but they all carry a common tenet: "People invested in a given perspective shall—when confronted with contrary evidence—expend great effort to justify retaining the challenged perspective."
The Wikipedia article describes these paradigms. One of them explains, for example, why people who have done something they consider immoral feel better after washing their hands. The most interesting to me was the experiment where children were less likely to exhibit cognitive dissonance when music by Mozart was played in the background.
Our beliefs affect the desirability of certain experiences
Can your belief about an experience affect the value you will place on it? For example, would your belief about the price of wine affect your appreciation of its taste? Probably, according to a 2008 study. Scientists use the phrase outcome valuation to describe whether the person expects a positive or negative outcome from the situation, motivating either acceptance or avoidance. Another study reported by the same authors exposed subjects to an odor. Some were told it was cheddar cheese. Others believed it was a sweaty sock. Did these beliefs affect their perception of the experience? Yes, indeed. "A third study showed that the outcome valuation signal after consumption of soda depended on beliefs about its brand. Together, these findings suggest that the outcome-valuation system is modulated by higher cognitive processes that determine expectancies and beliefs."Rangel, A., Camerer, C. & Montague, P. A framework for studying the neurobiology of value-based decision making. Nat Rev Neurosci 9, 545–556 (2008). https://doi.org/10.1038/nrn2357
Our beliefs affect our ability to get what we want
In Choose your own adventure, I discussed the relationship between rewards and free will, that is, how rewards influence whether we do what we want or what someone else wants us to do. There's a scientific theory that describes this process, and yes, it involves beliefs.
Expectancy Theory concerns the cognitive processes regarding choice or choosing and explains the processes that an individual undergoes to make a choice. In a given situation, therefore, people combine their needs with their beliefs and expectations of the chances of success.Barba-Sánchez, V., Atienza-Sahuquillo, C. Entrepreneurial motivation and self-employment: evidence from expectancy theory. Int Entrep Manag J 13, 1097–1115 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11365-017-0441-z
Expectancy Theory rates a person's belief in the following:
- Their ability to perform a behavior
- The attainability of the desired results
- Their degree of control over the outcome
- The likelihood that the reward will follow the desired outcome
- Finally, the person believes that the reward is worth it: They value the reward enough to consider it worth the effort.
This theory says Motivational Force = Expectancy x Instrumentality x Valence. In other words, the level of motivation positively correlates to the combination of all of the above factors. If any are significantly lacking, the level of motivation will be very low.
We've discussed what beliefs are, what role they serve, and how they are related to values. We've considered what happens when our personal beliefs conflict, how they affect the quality of our experiences, and how they determine whether we get what we want.
What is the relationship between understanding the nature of beliefs and having a bright outlook?
What are your core beliefs? What, if anything, would you die for? How can you be sure your beliefs won't lead you astray? How can you be sure you are right?
Future articles will delve further into this topic but for now, let's consider two methods. The first is part of the scientific method. It's called falsifiability. In general, science doesn't accept a theory as provable unless it is "falsifiable," that is if there are some kind of tests wherein the theory could be proved wrong. For example, if a theory says nothing can travel faster than light and you find something that travels faster than light, that theory has been disproved. Opening up our cherished beliefs to such critical analysis can feel deeply invasive, but we should consider the risks of being wrong if we aren't willing to examine evidence to the contrary.
The second method is using probabilistic thinking rather than relying on intuitions and gut reactions. In a future article, I'll discuss using existing knowledge about the likely shape of reality (called the base rate probability) to evaluate evidence. This involves mild use of math and statistics, which can be distasteful to some but greatly reduce the likelihood of many common thinking errors.
Which is worse: clinging to a dangerously erroneous belief or making the painful change to reduce the likelihood of disaster in the future? At the very least, we should take a close look at the beliefs that we hold as central to our lives, the ones that have the strongest motivational force. Rather than be afraid to question these, be open to the possibility that you will be stronger as a result.
Of course, you may decide that a "crony" belief is getting you where you want to be. The most important thing is that you make the choice deliberately rather than essentially letting others push you where they want you to go.
While our beliefs and identity are inextricably linked, why not consider the benefits of the willingness to make positive changes when you discover you've been mistaken? Living a life based on solid conviction has a much brighter outlook.