Throughout history human beings have believed in many strange and wonderfully complex things, from spirits and demons, to gods and goddesses, to worldwide conspiracy theories and little green men. Over that time our beliefs have changed many times, but our resistance to changing them seems as strong as ever.
The capacity and need for human beings to believe in things other than what they can experience directly is universal. We all do it. Even those that have turned away from believing in supernatural beings or otherworldly forces believe in abstract ideas such as truth and justice, imaginary concepts such as nations and markets, and narrative fictions such as history and political theories. We seem to emotionally recoil from the idea of living in a meaningless world, in which our existence is but an accident, where everything happens at random, and we are completely insignificant in the grand (or even daily) scheme of things. Instead we have this drive – call it an instinct – to make sense of the world. We categorize and structure the phenomena that surround us. We see patterns even in random configurations and evidence of planning and design in series of unrelated accidents. We see evidence of agency and intelligence even where nature may just mindlessly move of its own accord.
It’s not that we are consciously making these things up; our minds need to see patterns, significance, and meaning and will do so fully automatically, on a subconscious level. By the time we become consciously aware of anything, our minds have already had plenty of time to overlay the raw data of our senses with layers of interpretation. We seldom, if ever, observe anything as it actually is; we always observe it in its narrative context – its meaning in relation to what we believe about the world.
And we have been astoundingly creative in the narratives we created and then ended up believing in. The variations we have come up with are endless: from millions of named deities to a single unnamable one; from simple spirits animating every single object on Earth, to complex hierarchies of celestial beings; from human-like creature with all our strengths and weaknesses, to fundamentally opposing forces of good and evil.
With such a wide range of things and concepts to believe in one could be excused for expecting people to be quite relaxed about changing their beliefs from time to time. If all we want is a narrative that conveniently explains and structures the world around us, one narrative would be as good as another, as long as it is internally consistent, and provides a satisfactory mix of explanation, meaning, and human significance.
Nothing seems further from the truth, however. Instead of treating our narratives as approximations of the truth – one of many alternative explanations with varying degrees of intellectual and emotional appeal – we seem to want to latch on to a single narrative and convince ourselves it is the only truthful one.
It’s not that hard to see why our minds prefer a single narrative. By creating a plausible – or at least internally consistent – story about the world around us we simplify things enormously. We can ignore things that don’t fit into the narrative. We can base our behaviors on the rules and instructions contained (explicitly or implicitly) in the story. And we can quickly judge people and situations by those rules, without having to do any detailed observations and analysis, since we assume that everything we need to know has been captured in the narrative already. Instead of confusing ourselves with many possible explanations we we only have to deal with one. That certainly makes life easier.
But that doesn’t explain why we find it so hard to replace one belief with another, or adjust our narrative from time to time. Is the need to keep life simple reason enough to often violently resist against even minor changes to the narratives we have adopted? Or are there other drives at play here?
Looking at the amounts of energy, passion, and even violence people bring to defending their adopted beliefs, there must be more at stake here than just an easier life. Such energy and passion must stem from something fundamental being touched and threatened, fundamental enough to trigger an extreme fight/flight response, which is usually connected to things directly related to our immediate survival. But beliefs are not reality, they exist solely in our mind. So how can threatening someone’s belief trigger such survival-based reactions?
At the core of our defensiveness towards our beliefs there seems to be the strong connection between our sense of personal safety and what we belief in1. Threaten to take away our core beliefs and we react as if you are threatening our very existence. The question then is: what is it about beliefs that makes us feel safe?
The answer lies, I believe, in the concept of identity and how we construct, maintain, and relate to that. Human beings are intensely social creatures. We owe our existence to our ability to cooperate with other humans, and our success as a species to our ability to do so on a very large scale and with a combination of complexity and flexibility no other species seems to have mastered. We are born with a very strong instinct to connect to the people around us and bond deeply with them. Just look at a baby’s ability to recognize voices and faces, and young children’s constant need to reach out to others, involve them in their games, mimic and respond to their actions. Obviously, from a pure survival perspective, our long, comparatively helpless childhood necessitates an innate ability to build deep social bonds with those we depend on for our survival.
We are not just ‘managing’ our relationships with others, however, we actually define ourselves in the process. We are so tuned to the others in our social circle – their behaviors, their needs, their emotions – that we adapt to them and adjust our own behaviours, needs, and emotions in return. We become socialized: we subconsciously develop personae that enable us to fit in and function as members of the social circles we rely upon for our survival and internalize those personae as part of what we call our identity, our sense of self.
Our identity is not an independent ‘given’, but an adaptive, evolving response to the social pressures and influences surrounding us.
Since human beings never ‘just’ settle for behaviors, but have this strong instinct to embed everything in explanatory narratives, our socialized self, too, becomes embedded in layers of narrative. We internalize the stories others tell about us, we create stories that explain our personae to ourselves and to others: on top of our socialized self we create a narrated self. That narrated self, like all the other narratives we create, helps us simplify the complexity of our own behaviours, especially when we engage in self-reflection. It creates a sense of wholeness and consistency, which has been found by psychologists to be extremely important to our sense of stability and control: we have a strong dislike of internal inconsistencies and will perform all kinds of psychological ‘tricks’ to retell our narrated self in a way that maintains or restores a consistent self-image2.
Our narrated self is the complex set of narratives we create to explain our own behaviors and emotions to ourselves and others.
The building blocks of our narrated self are beliefs and assumptions: conceptual constructs that provide simple, consistent explanations of the immensely complex reality the narrative tries to capture. And because of our strong social nature, most of those beliefs and assumptions will come from the important others in our closest social circles. Our deep need to fit in and belong drives us to construct a narrated self that closely matches the narrated selfs of those around us, incorporating their beliefs and assumptions, and making them our own so we become, if not the same, at least very similar in their eyes as well as our own.
We must realize beliefs and assumptions are not just theories about the world and ourselves, they are the very building blocks we use to create our narrated self and our place in our social environment. Our beliefs both explain and shape our sense of identity. They provide the foundations that support the stories we use to explain our own actions to ourselves. They tie us to into our social circles by weaving a tight fabric of shared beliefs and assumptions that are shared by people that are ‘like’ us, and not shared by ‘them’: the anonymous others that are not part of our social circles. For most people their narrated self becomes the entire reality of their existence, of their identity as both an individual and as a member of the social circles they belong to.
Our beliefs become the building blocks of our narrated self, and our narrated self becomes the only visible proof of our existence.
And this may explain why it is so hard for us to let of go of things we belief in. Changing a belief or an assumption very often invalidates one or more building blocks of our narrated self. It disrupts the continuity and consistency of our self-image, and in the same process it can thereby unhinge the delicate fabric of shared beliefs that ties us into the social circles we feel we belong to. Even dislodging a single belief can threaten to unravel the narratives we rely on to explain our existence. Trying to fit in evidence that contradicts what we believe in can feel like breaking up the very foundation of our narrative self. And adopting beliefs that differ from those around us can feel like irreparably cutting loose the ties that bind us to others, and them to us.
For a social, narrative being like us humans, changing even a single belief involves much more than just admitting we had it wrong. It can feel like the end of the relationships we relied on to survive. And it can feel like the end of the self we so carefully built-up over time, and relied on to feel like a single, consistent, coherent human being. Is it any wonder then that most people choose to ignore the evidence rather than to adjust their belief system? And that most people, when pressured to give up their beliefs react fiercely, at times violently, against the ones that pressure them, rather than simply weighing alternatives and rationally choosing a new point of view?
Remember this, please, the next time you try to convince someone they have it all wrong. Don’t expect your clear and incontrovertible evidence to immediately make them see your point of view. Don’t judge them, scorn them, or make fun of their backward beliefs and outdated assumptions. In all likelihood you yourself have quite a few of such backward and outdated ideas in your own belief system you wouldn’t want to let go of if you were put under pressure. And maybe the very belief you’re trying to get someone else to accept from you is one of them.
- Most likely there are a number of factors at play here. Humans are complex creatures, and simple explanations seldom do justice to the full range of variables influencing our behavior. I do not claim to have a complete theory on this topic, just a ‘working theory’ at the moment, that goes some way towards explaining our observable behaviours around beliefs and belief-systems. ↩
- Interesting enough, there may not actually be a single, consistent self anywhere in the human brain: current thinking seems to lean towards the idea that what we perceive as our ‘self’ is actually a complex, largely retrospective, phenomenon, emerging from the interaction from a myriad of semi-independent processes in the brain. Even though we think we are someone, there may not actually be anyone in control. ↩