Beliefs shape who we are, more than we realize.
Gandhi said, “Our thoughts create our actions, our actions create our character and our character creates our destiny.”
Beliefs are an evolutionary optimization. They make it easier for us to navigate through life. At least that’s how beliefs feel to us.
Beliefs are notions that how things are supposed to be. In the more formal parlance, they are the ‘schema’ that we hold in our mind as how things are supposed to be.
We don’t like uncertainties. Uncertainty is the bane of human life. We go to great lengths at avoiding uncertainties in our lives.
You can identify with this notion personally. How would it be if things were certain in the future? Even if they were to be worse! At least you can prepare for that.
When you enter a new experience if somehow you already knew how things are supposed to be, that helps a great deal. Rather than not knowing at all, what to expect.
This works literally as well as figuratively, meaning if you just thought you knew how things are supposed to be when you enter a new experience it helps you a great deal, even if you actually didn’t know.
But how do we actually know, how things are supposed to be if we have never experienced anything? It’s a chicken and an egg problem.
Part of it is solved by learning through other’s experiences. We may not have experienced a situation, but others may have. You may not have travelled to Greece, but so many others have. So they know how things are supposed to be in Greece.
You can just get to know from other’s experience. By reading about it and by listening to other people talk about it.
One problem with this is that we humans are very subjective when it comes to our experiences. When we rely on others for knowing how things are supposed to be, very likely we are getting to know their subjective experiences, their ideas and opinions.
Many of the beliefs about things and places start out when we get to know about a new piece of information about a thing or a place.
For example, if you hear for the first time that “People in Greece are very laid back”, then that sows the seeds for that belief.
The belief becomes stronger when they are reinforced. If you hear over a few times that “People in Greece are laid back”, the belief becomes stronger. But if belief is not corroborated it may not become stronger.
After all, the common observations are more likely to be a fact. Or they are reflections of common human behavior. And these are the basis for many beliefs that we form.
The beliefs about places and things are relatively simple in nature. We have so many other kinds of beliefs. An important set of beliefs is the beliefs about the self and the beliefs about people close to us.
And for these beliefs, our biology or the genetic predisposition comes into play more prominently.
We have a general tendency to overestimate our ability. We routinely form beliefs that we are smarter than our siblings, spouses or friends. Or if you grew up with constant discouragement about yourself, you may have developed a strong self unworthiness beliefs.
Ideally one should neither be full of himself or herself nor have a total lack of self confidence.
What’s more interesting about beliefs is how we deal with situations where beliefs are violated. When we encounter a scenario that counters our deeply held belief, it is very unsettling to us.
You would think that we are a rational animal. The best way to deal with violations of beliefs would be to learn from that experience meaning perhaps reconsider our beliefs.
But that’s hardly what we do. One of the common ways of dealing with the dissonance is that we downplay the importance of the counter evidence.
One example is that you smoke and you come across a piece of news that talks about the detrimental health effects of smoking. This cause you to downplay the validity of the research or the news. You may think that the news may not be reliable or they must have made mistakes, or your case is unique and not applicable.
Scientists describe that we have an inner attitude that tries to maintain consistency between our beliefs and the actual experience or the observations. The inconsistency or the conflict between the belief and the actual observation is technically called cognitive dissonance.
It really is an urge, just like we have an urge to eat food. And it’s a very strong urge which can take us to great lengths when it comes to maintaining the consistency. It can make us take irrational steps. Unless we fully get in touch with this urge!!
It may come across as a shock to some of us that one of the very common mechanism for us to deal with belief infraction is to completely ignore the evidence. Not necessarily consciously, but mostly subconsciously.
For example, you may have a belief that your siblings are not as smart as you are and if you come across a piece of evidence that proves the otherwise, you may completely ignore the evidence as if it never existed.
The tendency to ignore the counter evidence becomes stronger for those beliefs where you are vested in the beliefs. Let’s say you believe that a certain part of the city has less crime rate and is a very safe area to live. That’s a belief to start with.
If you take action based on this belief and you buy your house in that area and start living there, this actually strengthen’s the belief that the area is safe. Just purely because now you are vested in that belief, you took action based on the belief.
Now if you come across evidence like if you read a stat indicating that crime rate in your area is not that high, you may just not register that. And when I say that you don’t register I don’t mean to imply a conscious action.
It can happen purely subconsciously where you read something and you start feeling the conflict with the belief and immediately this invisible hand, kicking in and in a way erasing the conscious experience of having that piece of information.
One of the common solution for the dissonance is a change in the attitude. This means changing the beliefs that we hold. In the smoking example, once you learn that there is evidence that your belief, or behavior is wrong, you should try and change that behavior.
This may not be a very effective solution. As you can imagine, for highly conditioned or habitual beliefs or behaviors, it is very hard to change. Quitting smoking is extremely difficult.
Getting in touch with your beliefs or behaviors can be extremely useful. As I mentioned earlier, most of the beliefs are subconscious. We do not really know them well. We just play them well.
If you know your beliefs, for what they are, just beliefs, then it may help you to be flexible. And then when they are shattered you don’t take it very personally, or you don’t react subconsciously in a predetermined way.
Then how to get in touch with our beliefs? It can help to initially and continue self inquiry. Try to consciously watch your behavior. When you make decisions, try to uncover, what motivated you to take that action or decision.
When you are feeling frustrated, irritated, sad or angry you can try to inquire what it is that is causing you to feel that way. This type of inquiry can become fruitful over the period of time. Although when you are in the throes, it may not be possible to conduct any kind of self inquiry.
Of course, awareness training can be of immense help. Because ultimately awareness can help shed the spotlight on what usually happens under the hood, the subconscious. And beliefs, for the most part are subconscious. Awareness cannot be trained fast. If you can be patient, there is a possibility of building the awareness muscle.
To summarize, beliefs are deeply ingrained in our psyche. They are very much part of our self image or identity. They work at a subconscious level and can make us act irrationally when they are violated. There are no quick fixes for this condition. Self inquiry and awareness can be of great help in dealing with belief conflict or the dissonances.