A Few Fun Facts about Beliefs

Beliefs evolved to explain causal relationships and had their origin in tool making. Animals do not understand force or cause and effect. Modifying a material to produce a tool is very rare in non-humans. Some animals can learn that one event leads to another (associative learning), but they do not understand why the action happens. Very young children acquire the belief that things do not move unless a force is applied to them. Chimps do poorly distinguishing between pulling a rope attached to food and a rope merely lying near the food. The concept of cause and effect led to tool making. Animals never acquire such a belief. For example, no animal has ever created a bag to carry things.

Once a person acquires a belief, they resist changing it. People tend to reject information contrary to the belief.

We tend to be overconfident in our judgments. We see patterns even when none exist. For example, three dots are seen as a triangle. Two dots * * and a line | and another line _ are seen as a face when presented vertically.

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We tend to prefer information that comes easily to mind, especially when estimating risk. We are more likely to expect to get a new disease if the symptoms are things we have experienced (muscle pain & headache) than if the symptoms are vague (inflamed liver & disorientation). We assume like goes with like (heartburn with spicy food). People assume there are more words with k as the first letter than the third letter, but there are three times more with k as the third letter.

Anchoring is when an uninformative number influences a guess about something. A wheel is spun to select a number. Then people are asked the number of African nations in the UN. People guess higher when the first number is higher. People guess a higher number when asked to multiply 8X7X6 down to 1 rather than 1X2X3 up to 8. Both guesses are usually far too low (answer is 40,320).

Emotions influence beliefs. A false belief may produce jealousy. Finding out the belief is false may actually strengthen the jealousy rather than reduce it.

Beliefs can feel like possessions with feelings of ownership and attachment.

False beliefs that arise from brain pathology usually are about the person themselves or other people, less often about the physical world (putting the Eiffel Tower in their pocket). Producing false memories is called confabulation. False memories can vary from being unsure of whether you deposited a check to recalling being abducted by aliens. Spontaneous confabulation can come from damage to the frontal lobes. We often construct stories to produce consistency in our memories.

Delusions are beliefs held on inadequate grounds and unaffected by contrary evidence. Religious beliefs are excluded from the definition because they are culturally determined and common. One study found that 10 to 15 percent of the population have hallucinatory experiences, and 20 percent report delusions (for example, the feeling that others can read their minds, that they can read the minds of others, that someone is aiming harm at them, that there are mysterious forces working for the good of the world, or that they are not in control of their own actions). Another study found that 40 percent of American college students reported having heard their thoughts spoken out loud. Only about 30 percent had no experience at all of hallucinations.

There is much overlap between normal people and those with a mental illness. Delusions are an attempt to make sense of the world. One way a delusion may occur is to have an unusual experience, accept the reality of the experience, and form a belief about the cause. Once formed, the belief is resistant to change. Delusions can lead to behaviors that reinforce the delusion. A persecutory delusion may lead to being more cautious, which may feel safer and convince the person of the need to be cautious.

People who score higher on a delusion inventory are more likely to jump to a conclusion on minimal evidence and have a stronger need for closure. They have less tolerance for uncertainty and ambiguity. Delusions can sometimes be adaptive. Being blind to a partner’s faults may help maintain a marriage.

Delusions of being controlled by an outside force may come from a mismatch between motor control and the sensory input that monitors the movement. Being unable to monitor one’s own movements may be interpreted as outside control.

Depression can be viewed as sadness becoming excessive and leading to false beliefs. Cognitive therapy urges and coaches the person to consciously change their self-talk and their false beliefs.

Scientific theories are special because they are not programed into our brains. Logic and evidence dominate. Science is a common body of knowledge independent of culture. Even if the history of science had been different, the conclusions would be the same. Unlike art, the individual scientist is irrelevant. Scientific knowledge requires verification by independent scientists. Science is continually changing only at the frontiers of investigation. The core of science is largely solid. Scientific knowledge has no intrinsic ethical or moral content.

Science is unnatural. It involves a special way of thinking. It ignores the obvious and looks for deeper understanding. It refutes common sense. Common sense does not lead to science. The sun does not move around the earth in spite of how it looks. There are more molecules in a glass of water than there are glasses of water in the ocean. Cold does not flow from an ice cube into a drink, heat flows into the ice to melt it. Everyday analogies completely break down in quantum mechanics. Knowledge of science has little affect on most people’s lives.

Science also uses statistics and math to calculate probabilities of events occurring. People are very poor at accurately predicting probabilities. Most people firmly believe that a coin flip that has come up heads five times in a row means the next flip is more likely tails.

Scientists can be wrong until evidence prevails. When Alfred Wagener in the 1920s proposed that Africa and South America had once been joined and had drifted apart over millions of years, it took 40 years before the evidence for continental drift was confirmed by measurement of the earth’s magnetic field. Gravity was considered to be a paranormal phenomenon when it was first proposed by Isaac Newton.

The idea of proof originated with the Greeks. Aristotle developed the idea of logic. If premises were true, the conclusion deduced from them could be trusted. Archimedes was probably the first to apply math to physical phenomena. His knowledge of the mechanics of levers and hydrostatics remain true today.

The ancient Chinese had amazing technology but no science. Their beliefs were predominately mystical.

False beliefs that arise in some forms of mental illness may be linked to brain circuits that predispose humans to religious beliefs. That may be why LSD can produce mystical experiences. The belief engine programmed into our brain prefers quick decisions, is bad with numbers, loves familiarity, sees patterns in random occurrences, and is easily influenced by authority and mysticism. Beliefs give comfort and meaning to our lives. The danger comes when unsubstantiated beliefs affect our society and the way we understand our world.

Religion evolved from the clear understanding that we humans cause things to happen, so happenings we don’t understand were thought to have a human-like god causing them to happen. Humans find uncertainty or not knowing something very uncomfortable, so we make up stories as explanations.

All of this fascinating information and much more can be found in Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast by Lewis Wolpert.

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