November 16, 2015

Letting go of irrational beliefs

Being able to change your beliefs is necessary for keeping on playing a positive role in the world. Not being able to think critically about your own beliefs and to change them when they are not true eventually will keep you from playing a constructive role. An ultimate example of the inability to change one's views can be found in religious fanatics who create death and destruction while believing they are doing something good.

Letting go of beliefs can be important but also hard.

Recently I described 4 Factors which impede the change of beliefs: (1) the confirmation bias, (2) self-fulfilling prophecies, (3) labeling oneself based on one's beliefs, and (4) social pressure. As it seems, many readers found that article interesting and useful. Some asked me - understandably - how these obstacles can be overcome. I'll try to formulate some ideas about that.

The confirmation bias is the mistake we unconsciously make to primarily look for confirmation of our beliefs and to be largely blind for information which contradicts our beliefs. Counteracting the confirmation bias begins by realizing that it exists and that you are vulnerable to it, too. Once you realize this you can begin to arm yourself against it by (1) critically examining your beliefs (for example by using this evaluation tool), and (2) by having conversations with people who have different beliefs and to ask them questions.

Self-fulfilling prophecies are predictions or expectations which influence one's behavior in such ways that they make themselves come true. Without you being aware of it they limit the range of your behaviors and thereby your future experiences which prevents you from finding out that things might have gone differently if you had acted differently. If you have negative experiences in a certain type of situation you might examine whether self-fulfilling prophecies play a role in them. Try, to start with, to make explicit what your beliefs are regarding the situation. Then ask yourself whether you can be sure about the rightness of these beliefs. Consider thinking slightly different about the situation and see if that leads to a better result.

Labeling oneself based on one's beliefs is something which many people do. The disadvantage of doing this is that you may become so attached to these beliefs that it becomes very hard to change them. If you find out the belief isn't true, you may start to think there is something wrong with you, too. This may evoke an existential fear. My suggestion it to loosen the relation between who you are and which beliefs you have. Instead of thinking: "This belief is fundamental to my life",  you can start to think: "As a human being I cannot be absolutely certain of anything. Therefore, any belief I have must change if this change will make my view on the world more realistic."

Social pressure happens when certain beliefs are strongly tied to membership of a group. Questioning those beliefs can create a strong anxiety to be expelled from the group or worse. A remedy for this is to loosen the relationship between group membership and beliefs. Doing this, also means to redefine what the essence of the group is. The belief is no longer the foundation under the group. Groups too can declare that their beliefs can evolve. Perhaps even more important is to start thinking differently about group membership altogether. A strong exclusive identification with one group can be a problem in itself.

As human beings we never belong to only one group. We are part of many social networks and ultimately we are all members of humanity as a whole. Maybe it is wise to start viewing that group membership as our most important group membership and to primarily identify with humanity as a whole.

Critically evaluating one's beliefs can create confusion and anxiety which can be a reason to avoid it. But I think we should change our beliefs about our beliefs. We can probably never be certain about anything. Therefore all our beliefs should at best have the status 'provisional'. Some beliefs may already be so realistic that they may need little improvement over time. Other beliefs may turn out to be completely based on an illusion. If the latter is the case, there is no point in holding on to them. No matter how much we have invested in them, if the beliefs do not correspond to reality, they are outdated. When we let go of outdated beliefs, we let go of a misguided sense of certainty.

Maybe this will lead to us having to walk around with more question marks than exclamation marks in our lives. But I think we may find out that living with questions is less difficult than it seems and it may lead to better results than you might expect.

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