We all have strange beliefs that influence our lives. Many of our beliefs have been instrumental in our success but became irrelevant as our lives changed. Each irrational belief is a potential weakness, a trap we are unaware of. Freeing ourselves from strange beliefs we reduce risks and open up to new possibilities. For more information about the subject, you can read here, here, here, here.
How do we form beliefs?
Most of our beliefs are instrumental to our survival at some stage of our lives:
- Positive thinking. Some beliefs can be instrumental. There is a known effect when a belief finds a way to fulfill itself. If we believe in a medicine, the medicine will work even if it is a placebo. When we believe something bad is going to happen, we are very effective finding and disarming threats. Believing something good will happen instead, we are very creative finding and exploring opportunities. However, if you get a paranoid depression or build castles in the sand, you know your beliefs went one step too far.
- Automatic thinking. Thinking is hard. If we can decide automatically with very little thinking, we will do so. Many of our stereotypes simply assist us in making very fast and not very bad decisions. Occasionally these decisions are wrong, but the reduction of cognitive load is well worth it. These automatic decisions are good for small things. If we need to make a big decision, it is best to be well-educated, only we cannot easily switch into “critical decision” mode and use the same beliefs we used for trivial stuff.
- Group thinking. We are social creatures and want to be accepted. If people around us have some sort of beliefs, we can socialize with them and have the same beliefs. People who live in the same neighborhood go the same churches, vote for the same parties and same sports teams. With time the neighborhood changes or we move to a different neighborhood, only we still have the same stereotypes.
- Evolutionary biases. We have all seen optical illusions. Our brain is wired in a certain way that is right most of the times, but occasionally it is wrong. With practice, we can recognize the situation where our senses fool us. Marketologists, magicians, and cons use these biases. We cannot trick our senses, but at least we behave more rationally than what our senses suggest.
- Math biases. Math is hard. It is easy to make mistakes. Some mistakes are very common. These mistakes can be easily studied. There is a special branch of psychology dealing with mistakes we make in the formal logic, statistics, personal finance etc. We could have invested time in proper learning, but most people simply do not bother.
There are some different classifications of beliefs and biases in different resources. I did not want to provide my own classification but simply point out that many beliefs are positive at some stage of our lives but cannot serve us later.
Denying our biases
Some biases are programmed into us, other biases are associated with major things in our lives. It feels like we have less control in our life than we would want to admit. If we try to accept and change these biases we change how we perceive ourselves and it also changes the person we are. This is a scary thought, so people typically deny their biases. Once we acknowledge we have a bias this still does not mean we will want to change it. We may think the bias actually serves for our benefit, the effect is too insignificant, or we may feel too weak to change anything.
Typically we accept that we have a bias only after participating in an experiment. Occasionally we will accept an expert opinion, or accept some experimental results, but most often we simply will fail in a controlled environment. This definitely works with optical illusion and magic, to a lesser extent it works if we lose a lot of money or some health on stupid gambles.
A shock may make us reconsider our biases and work to improve them.
The good news: we do not have to get shocked each time. A single shock, like the subprime crisis in 2008, may push you to lifetime quest of finding your biases and getting free from them.
Some of our beliefs are seamingly harmless. A person can believe in god creating the universe, reincarnation and karmic cycles, conspiracy theories and UFOs…
If you believe some or all of these things you will be ridiculed by some, yet loved by others. These beliefs will probably not make you do stupid things.
A Muslim will not automatically become a terrorist, a fashionista will not starve to death and an artist will not take mind-altering drugs. However, under the right conditions, even the harmless beliefs can get out of control and make people do crazy things. These crazy acts are sufficiently dangerous to make us doubt the very harmless nature of the original beliefs.
Crazy people change the way most of us think. This is how the stereotypes may reverse statistics: very few Muslims are terrorists, yet most of the terrorists currently are Muslims. Should we treat other groups differently, just because a very small number of people in the group acts crazy? This is a complex and charged question, one I definitely do not want to discuss here.
What I do want to say: when you think you beliefs are harmless or positive, do make some extra effort to maintain their positive effect on you and people around you.
We are constantly fooling ourselves in different ways. Critical thinking does not stop this effect, but at least it minimizes the damage. Each new idea we get can be analyzed in an organized matter:
- Scientifically sound. Is there an acceptable scientific framework that supports new ideas? If so, probably we are OK. If the science is inconclusive, or there is no science, the idea may still be correct. We just need to be more skeptical about it.
- Supporting evidence. If there are supportive evidence, expert opinions, reasonable logical stipulations, we tend to trust the ideas. We do need to address the other opinions with controversial evidence, even if they are wrong, they COULD be right.
- Magical thinking. Occasionally we think that we or some things are special. This is probably (not always but most likely) wrong. If other people lose money gambling, you will probably lose money participating in the same activity. If you got a lucky streak this does not mean statistics works differently for you.
- Who profits? People will try to manipulate you. You will try to fool yourself. If it is very clear who profits, everything needs to be double-checked.
Critical thinking is muck more complex than these examples. It is a big and useful branch of philosophy and psychology. If you have time to learn it, maybe you should. If you do not have time to learn it, simply doubt everything you learn. If something seems sound perhaps it is OK, but if you are SURE about something, maybe there are some hidden beliefs involved.
Freeing yourself from social stereotypes
We will occasionally get stereotypical thoughts. It is stupid to deny the stereotypes. Instead, we should ask for each person we see if the stereotype applies for that person. Probably the stereotype will not apply. We will think longer and check better before trusting people with different background, but at least we will not hurt them. Each time you think about a person as “weird” you take the person out of the stereotypical group. Think of yourself as a “weird” student, scientist, businessman and you will dissociate with the stereotypes you have about yourself.
For years I have been an introvert. At some point, I started to accept that I am a “weird” introvert. I still score high on introversion, but most of my friends are sure I am an extrovert. To tell you the truth, I am not even sure that all this typology is accurate: it is simply instrumental in making some decisions. If it does not work for you, change it!
If you decide to change your beliefs, there are some techniques to do it. I will mention them, do not expect to use this short list practically without serious practice:
- Actively look for hidden beliefs you may have.
- Accept your belief can hurt you and generate a list of examples.
- Reduce the level of belief from SURE to maybe.
- See how an alternative belief can be plausible. Try to distribute the likelihood of each belief in your life, as is instrumental for your success.
- Each time you read something or hear something that supports the belief, do doubt and check the sources. Every time you learn something contradictory to your belief, also check sources.