Updated: May 5, 2022
What are beliefs and why we form them
Life doesn’t come with a user guide. When we’re born, we have no idea what’s going on...
In a nutshell, beliefs are the brain's readiness to interpret patterns in the world even in random phenomena. As a 'belief engine', the brain is always seeking to find meaning in the information that pours into it, after all our brain receives over 11 million bits of information every second.
Beliefs allow the brain to filter these complex floods of information, enabling it to swiftly categorize and evaluate information and then to jump to conclusions.
The brains job is to preserve our life and energy. In its need for economy and efficiency of energy consumption, the default tendency of the brain is to fit new information into an existing structure or framework for understanding the world, rather than repeatedly reconstructing that framework from scratch every time.
The trouble is, we form our beliefs first and then look for evidence in support of them afterwards. Once it has constructed a belief, it rationalizes it with explanations, almost always after the event. The brain thus becomes invested in the beliefs and reinforces them by looking for supporting evidence while blinding itself to anything contrary.
This brings us to the confirmation bias
When we vehemently believe something to be true, even if it’s something negative, we look for evidence to support that belief. To put it simply, we just want to be right! Being right about a person or a situation, fills us with pride, with satisfaction, and you guessed it, even if it’s completely negative. Being right is the silver lining and the saviour in our gloom & doom.
I remember hearing a quote a few years ago, that illustrates the confirmation bias superbly!
“If you’re expecting someone to disappoint you, they won’t let you down!”
One of my friends doesn’t get on with her mother-in-law at all, but instead of walking even so much as 10 steps in her shoes or trying to understand where she may be coming from, she usually jumps to conclusions and judges situations before they even happen.
Sadly, she almost loves calling me up after a visit to tell me just how horrible the mother-in-law was again! The things she did and the unforgivable things she said...
She formed an opinion about her long ago and she’s sticking to it, and being right about her each time reinforces that belief and she feels good knowing she 'has her all figured out!'
As mentioned before, the brain needs to conserve energy and it would be very ‘costly’ and effortful to engage a higher reasoning process to create a new and smoother relationship with the mother by marriage. And so, the situation stays exactly the same…
To cut my friend some slack though, change is hard.
We are actually hard wired to resist change. I spoke about this many times before I’m sure, but I’ll happily say it again :) Only a few hundred years ago change was not only uncomfortable, but it could actually kill you. If you and your tribe ventured into a new territory, you had no idea what to expect. You didn’t know what predators were lurking round the corner or what poisonous berries were waiting to take your life! In all seriousness though, the mind has learned to fear change and to fear newness in the spirit of preserving our life. This is the default setting. It is in all of us. Some simply accept this setting and go with the flow; others very much go against it.
Someone who is about the jump out of a flying airplane, hopefully equipped with a parachute, definitely has fears, their brain is screaming –“DON’T DO IT”!- they just choose to talk themselves out of it. They choose the adrenaline and the excitement over the fear.
It also doesn’t help that since we experience the external world entirely through our senses, we find it hard to accept that these perceptions are often subjectively distorted and that they are not necessarily reliable experiences of objective reality.
We trust our subjective experience far too much; we give them and our beliefs simply too much credit. We will more readily explain away evidence that contradicts our cherished belief by expanding and elaborating that belief with additional layers of distorted explanation, rather than abandoning it or fundamentally restructuring it.
Radically restructuring our belief system and creating a new worldview engages parts of the brain involved in higher reasoning processes and thinking, and is consequently more effortful, time- and energy-consuming. The brain often cannot afford such an investment. This would explain why, when we experience cognitive dissonance, (the state of having inconsistent thoughts) it is easier to resolve this discomfort by doubling down on our existing belief system. We ignore or explain away the challenging, contradictory information.
We also resist change because we believe we will lose something of value or fear we will not be able to adapt to the new ways. The unknown is pretty scary after all.
Not many of us love to embrace the unknown. Guess what – our brain doesn’t like it at all ;)
At the core of any fear, we have in life, is the fear of the unknown. The big question, will I be able to cope? What if I can’t deal with it? The unknown is the scariest place on earth. Many people would prefer to get bad news, then to be left hanging and suspended on the column of uncertainty.
Our brain doesn’t consider that we may want to live in a better way or do something that would move the quality of our life forwards, it just wants us to survive. That’s it. You may believe that you are not smart enough to become a doctor or a lawyer to fulfil a childhood dream, but your brain doesn’t care anyway.
It would argue that you can still find shelter, you can eat and survive. You don’t need to be a high paid professional or successful to do those things, so it does not want to engage in any debates or belief restructuring. It takes a lot of awareness and conscious effort from our side to challenge and leave old, limiting beliefs behind. So is it worth the effort? -Absolutely!!
But who am I without my beliefs?
Just when you thought you solved a major problem the next one arises. You’ve understood why your beliefs are so stubborn and you now know you need to challenge and change them, but in a lot of cases that doesn’t just mean shedding old beliefs, it can also feel like getting rid of a part of your personality.
I realise that last sentence was a bit of a mouthful so allow me to explain.
My friends like to joke and say that I get angry easily. My brother even said recently that I’m always 65% angry, ready to explode -just in case. Of course, we laughed about it, but there is certainly truth to it. I am working hard on managing my anger, but the reality is, that it’s my perceptions and past memories I need to manage and deal with.
About 2 years ago I started to meditate, and I looked into what else I could do to control my reactions and anger but if I’m being 100% honest, I really have embraced the 'Angry Eszter' persona. I have accepted it and every now and then a thought will flash through my mind asking, "who am I without the anger?"
'Angry Eszter' is strong and has her opinions and she stands up for herself and so on and so forth. If I leave the anger behind however – will I become like everyone else, will I be average?
Is that what I want? 'Regular Eszter' doesn’t have the same ring to it as 'Angry Eszter'- it just doesn’t sound as cool… haha. Anger isn’t something to be proud of, but it was a big part of me.
A belief isn’t always just a negative thought we need to question and change, it’s so much more. It’s part of our personality, it’s a big part of our worldview, it’s part of our very own justice system, we act based on our beliefs and hence it’s much more stubborn than a red wine stain!