May 17, 2016

3 Types of harm from irrational beliefs

I define irrational beliefs as beliefs which are incoherent or logically inconsistent and which are in conflict with what we know about reality (in conflict with available evidence, that is). Nobody is free from irrational beliefs. Our way of interpreting reality is not and never will be perfect. We are afflicted with systematic biases in how we perceive reality. Furthermore, through our upbringing and culture, we all inevitably have, without us being aware of it, adapted beliefs which are outdated.

That we have irrational beliefs does not mean we must acquiesce in that fact. Critically reflecting on your own beliefs is a good thing. It enables you to develop your view on the world and to make it more realistic. For several reasons that can be hard. In this post I described four factors which impede the process of changing our of beliefs: (1) the confirmation bias, (2) self-fulfilling prophecies, (3) labeling oneself based on one's beliefs, and (4) social pressure. Then, in this post, I described some ways to overcome these obstacles.

I added briefly why I think it is important to update irrational beliefs: “When we let go of outdated beliefs, we let go of a misguided sense of certainty.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.”

I realize this explanation is rather abstract and brief so I would like to say a bit more about the importance of permanently be prepared to adjust irrational beliefs. I see three types of potential harmful effects of sticking to irrational beliefs:
  1. Harm to oneself. People may harm themselves because of their irrational beliefs by doing things which are directly harmful or by failing to do things which which are needed. Some examples: keeping on smoking because you do not trust research which has demonstrated that smoking increases the likelihood of cancer, denying yourself medical treatment because you believe that alternative medicine is more credible than regular medicine, not trying to become better at something because you believe you lack talent for it, sever contacts with relatives and quitting your job because you have joined a religious sect, etc.  
  2. Harm to others. Irrational beliefs can make you do things which are directly harmful  to others, can make you convince others to harmful things or to keep from doing necessary things. Some examples: denying children medical treatment because of your religious views, recruiting people for jihad, denying people development opportunities because you think they lack talent, recommending or selling homeopathic 'medicine', etc. There may be different motives for harming people in such ways. Motives might be sincere. That would be the case when the person actually holds the irrationals beliefs making him cause harm to others. But they may also be insincere. Advocating irrational beliefs and the associated behavior can also be done for one's own profit (I would not be too surprise if that is the case for many people producing and selling alternative medicine). 
  3. Societal harm. Irrational beliefs can also harm communities and societies. An example is the obstruction of good education on account of religious views ("evolution conflicts with the Bible!") Irrational beliefs can create and amplify division between groups. Worldwide there have been (and still are) tensions and battles not only between religious groups but also within religious groups. These types of tensions are obstacles for building unity within and between societies. For clarification: freedom of and from religious thinking is a good thing. Asking questions about whether there is some sort of god and develop hypotheses is in itself not irrational or harmful. Harmful effects happen when freedom of thinking about religious topics is restricted. Ironically, that happens in particular when organized religions become powerful.  The reason is that within those religions the room to ask questions generally is discouraged (all too often violently). Instead, more or less unwavering answers, dogma's, have been formulated. These answers take away the room for the followers of the religion to keep asking questions and to come up with their own answers. This leads to the paradoxical situation that in the most religious societies on earth (as in countries in the Middle East) there is generally the least religious freedom. Organized religion is not the only example of a source of harmful irrationality and the division that comes along with it. A same type of division can, for example, be caused by nationalistic or racial ideologies, irrational beliefs that one's own nation, people, or 'race' is inherently superior to others. 
Holding on to irrational beliefs can harm oneself and others. Updating our beliefs about reality in a step by step fashion, can contribute to progress. We should not think in perfectionistic terms about beliefs. We should not overreact when we catch ourselves or someone else having an irrational belief. To some extent it is normal to have irrational beliefs. But we can help ourselves and others to move in a direction of more rational beliefs.

We can learn to become more aware of what our beliefs are, to think about how confident we are about those beliefs, and to reflect on what we base that level of confidence on. Then, we can ask questions and gather reliable information which may help us update our beliefs. The more autonomous and safe we feel while we do this the greater the chance of progress will be.

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