Belief is “the ability to combine histories and experiences with imagination, to think beyond the here and now”1. Our minds are meaning machines. And so it’s pursuit is to find (or create) the meaning of everything. Further, what we consider our reality is a function of what we believe, not visa versa. Throughout human history, people have been either castigated or commended for their beliefs. If you were cast out of the “tribe”, this equated a death sentence. Consequently, our beliefs have evolved to be relevant and important to our lives. Often feeling like a matter of life and death.
And so, these are the four things you need to know about your beliefs.
1. Your Beliefs Are Strongly Influenced By Your Tribe
The feedback that you received as a child strongly influenced what you believe about yourself5. Our caregivers essentially provided initial beliefs regarding ourselves6. It’s fair to point out that with this initial piece of learning, that we also began the process of belief by taking on others’ beliefs about us. Also, we also began to make decisions about others based on the way we were treated by them. If we were loved and nurtured, then we are likely to have the belief that people are loving and nurturing5.
At times, we have beliefs only to ensure that we are accepted in our tribes. James Clear writes “The people who are most likely to change our minds are the ones we agree with on 98 percent of topics”3. In other words, the people we’re closest to influence us the most. Often referred to as Social Proximity Effect6, we mirror those who we spend the most time with7. This is true with beliefs as well. Asking someone to change their minds on a core belief is akin to asking they change tribes3. A difficult proposition indeed.
2. What You Believe Determines Your Reality…Not The Other Way Around
This idea is true culturally. For almost one hundred years it was said that a human being could not run a mile in four minutes. That is, until 1954 when Roger Maris did just that. Since then, more than one thousand others have completed this feat. Time did not change, nor did the devices or units we used to measure human running speed. However, what did change was the belief that it could be done8. Consequently, many have changed their beliefs regarding the four minute mile.
Our core beliefs are often considered in making decisions in our lives. Because of this, it is important that the quality of our beliefs will cause us to “run a four-minute mile”. That they will inspire our success. But all to often, our beliefs are self-limiting.
- I am not attractive enough
- I want great relationships as long as I don’t get hurt
- “X” is wrong with me, I don’t deserve love9
Dr. Bobby Hoffman provides a good framework to think about how powerful beliefs drive our perceptions.
First, control. People who believe that they are in control of their lives are more accountable for their own success and failures. They feel they have the ability to orchestrate their lives, relationships and career.
Second, competency can determine the likelihood of performing on tests and completing tasks. Task avoidance, on the other hand, is tied to a feeling of incompetence.
Third, value. The value that we believe is derived from completing a task will often direct our behavior to complete the task.
Goal orientation is the fourth self-belief that drives our perceptions. The more goal oriented we are (especially when we get to the top of this “scale” to Mastery Performer), the more likely we are to try varying strategies to achieve goals and monitor our progress.
And finally, epistemology or the belief about the acquisition, application and usefulness of knowledge determines how we perceive knowledge, information and problem solving in general10.
Research has found time and time again, that what we believe about an outcome influences the outcome11.
3. There Are Things That You Believe, That Are Simply Untrue
Climate change is a political hoax.
The Earth is flat.
Brain cells can’t regenerate. T
here were three wise men.
Caffeine dehydrates you.
Adam and Eve ate an apple.
What do all of these statements have in common? They are all commonly held false beliefs.
Perhaps most interestingly, even in the face of evidence, we tend to hold on to false beliefs. If we believe that we know a lot about a topic, our level of curiosity lowers. Therefore, we don’t explore the idea any further and it “sticks”12. Confirmation Bias posits that we tend to discount ideas that contradict what we already believe13. I put some effort into ensuring that in the list of “false beliefs” listed above, there were examples that would ruffle feathers. That’s your confirmation bias at work.
Some 25% of Americans report being superstitious. Superstition is most commonly described as recognizing, fearing or celebrating “co-occurring, non-related events.”14 Many times superstitions can become self-fulfilling prophecies. In a study completed in China, students born during the year of the Dragon were examined. Chinese astrology points to those born the year of the dragon being “destined for good fortune and greatness.” The study found that due to this belief by the children’s parents, the parents behavior changed in ways that caused the children’s performance in school to be enhanced. The parents expected more of their children, spoke with their teachers more than other students and more often incentivised performance15.
4. We Can Change Our Beliefs And Other’s…But Not How You Think
When I was young, my girlfriend’s father provided an old adage: “When you’re young, if you’re not liberal you don’t have a heart. When you’re old, if your not conservative you don’t have a brain.” Well, ladies and gentlemen, I was the tin man and am now the flighty scarecrow.
We can change what we believe. Implicit in the definition of belief is experience and history. Much has happened to change those things in my life. Experience will change conceptions. These changes will alter our beliefs. We are a process.
Harvard Professor John Sharp recommends the following:
- Be the editor of your life story. If life’s not manifesting what you want, change the script. Make the decision to change.
- Divergence Point. Where does your story break from the reality? Identify. Start here.
- Is the story you’re telling yourself really true? Is it too negative? Does it hide bad habits? What does it conceal? Is there a blindspot?
- Think Self-Appreciation vs Self-Deprecation. You’re beliefs are intertwined with your identity. It takes time. Be patient with you.
- Ditch the Old Story. “Cut away what no longer serves you.”16
You are not your beliefs. Although tightly tied with identity, belief is continually changing in us. C.S. Lewis was famously an atheist turned Christian. Vader comes back from the dark side, in the end. Even to yourself, be kind first and right later3.