Why Is It So Hard to Change Our Beliefs?

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.

Enlightenment peeking through the chaos – Bard Papegaaij

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.

The socialized personae of the self - Bard Papegaaij
The socialized personae of the self – Bard Papegaaij

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 self as a narrative construct - Bard Papegaaij
The self as a narrative construct – Bard Papegaaij

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.

The selves emerging on all levels of consciousness - Bard Papegaaij
The selves emerging on all levels of consciousness – Bard Papegaaij

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

The Power of Symbols: A Story of Dragons and Phoenixes

Symbolic images are deceptively simple but incredibly powerful, each image containing whole worlds of stories, mythologies, cultural learning, and racial memories.

Several years ago, when I was regularly discussing the idea of writing a book with my dear friend Al Sheehan, the conversation veered to finding an appropriate title for our work in progress. Though my ideas have progressed considerably since those days, the central theme is still intact: the idea that our global society is on a dangerous course of self-destruction, fueled by greed, fear, and a mistaken belief in the superiority of modern humans over anything that existed in the past. Looking for a good way to capture the ideas of greed, fear, and superiority Al and I stumbled on the image of the dragon.

In Western mythology the dragon is an evil creature. It is huge, very often virtually invincible (unless you know its one weak spot), and uses the fire it breathes as a terrible weapon of destruction. Its sole purpose in life seems to be the hoarding of treasures (and occasionally stealing or seducing a virgin, though nobody is quite sure what for), which it will then guard jealously against anyone attempting to steal even a single coin or jewel. And when its anger is roused it does not hesitate to lay waste to entire cities and their surrounding lands, just because it can.


I thought this Western dragon was the perfect symbol for the current economic industrial system dominating most (if not all) of the world today. This system, too, seems obsessed with collecting and hoarding treasures at the expense of anyone daring to cross it. It guards its treasures jealously against anything it perceives as a threat, and doesn’t hesitate to use its superior fire-power to destroy its attackers (real or imagined) along with anyone that had the misfortune to be near. The image of a dragon lying on top of an incredible amount of gold, jewels, and artifacts, surrounded by smoking ruins and a blackened, utterly destroyed landscape as far as the eye can see, is – to me at least – very close to the way modern industrial society is destroying the planet for the sake of creating wealth and treasures it doesn’t even know what to do with.

Once the symbol of the dragon was firmly established, the symbol of its opposite announced itself almost straight away. There is another fire wielding animal in the mythical realm, but this one uses fire not as a weapon, but as a means of regeneration and renewal. The phoenix is, in many traditions, a long-lived, gentle, noble bird that harms no-one, brings good fortune to many, and – when it feels it is reaching the end of its natural life – builds a funeral pyre for itself, commits itself to the fire, and rises out of the ashes fully rejuvenated, ready for another long, peaceful and fruitful life. What better symbol to put against the dragon’s utterly selfish and destructive use of fire than the benign, peaceful, and self-sacrificing phoenix, using fire as a transformative, rather than destructive power?


So, there I was, perfectly happy to have found a nice juxtaposition of two powerful and well-known symbols from Western mythology. And it made an interesting sounding title, too: The Dragon and The Phoenix – evoking, perhaps, a battle between opposing principles, a clash of ideas, or perhaps simply two very different creatures encountering each other. The nice thing about symbols is, of course, that everyone is perfectly free to make up their own mind about their true meaning, based on their personal knowledge of and experience with these symbols in their life.

And then, about a year later, I happened to visit Hong Kong and mainland China. That visit made me remember something I had known but apparently mostly forgotten, that the Chinese, too, have dragons in their mythology, but that, contrary to ours, their dragons are mostly benign, and considered to be powerful protectors of humanity. Intrigued by this different view of the dragons’ nature I began looking for dragon imagery in art stores and antique shops, hoping that maybe I could find a nice image for the cover of the book. It was when browsing through images and carvings of all kinds of mythical creatures I made an unexpected discovery: not only does Chinese mythology have benign dragons, they have an equally benign phoenix, too, and the two are often portrayed as lovers! That’s right, in Chinese mythology the dragon and the phoenix are happily married together, as a symbol for the harmonic balance between the masculine (dragon) and feminine (phoenix) elements of the world. In this imagery they may be juxtaposed, but not as alternatives to each other, or as enemies, but as necessary counterparts, complementary principles that only form a whole when brought together in harmony and balance.


I couldn’t be more happy with this discovery. I always liked the juxtaposition of the destructive dragon to the transformative phoenix, but the way I pictured it, the two were engaged in a battle where only one could win. I was on the side of the phoenix, obviously, since I feel our dragon-mentality is causing more damage than benefit. But the idea that it would have to be either/or, either the dragon or the phoenix rising to the top, did not completely satisfy me. I actually like the Chinese marriage of the dragon and the phoenix a lot better. Instead of a battle, we now have a balancing of complementary forces; a harmonic resolution, instead of a violent conflict. It brings together dark and light, destruction and transformation, East and West, masculine and feminine, …

With the Chinese overtones added to the symbology, I feel the title of the book/blog has become even more appropriate to my quest: to find a positive resolution of the destructive path we are currently on. Which brings me back to the power of symbols: the dragon and the phoenix came to me through my link to Western mythology, and that gave them meaning; by adding the rich tapestry of Eastern mythology the same symbols now reveal even greater depths of wisdom and understanding than I was even aware of. It’s like alchemy: making gold out of ordinary materials. Without destroying the world to do so.

The Narratives That Shape Our World

We are not just experiencing the world but constantly interpreting it as we go.

Pure experience is the immersion in whatever presents itself, without interpretation, categorization, expectation. Narration is taking what we experience and giving it meaning by giving it a place in relation to the pre-existing structures in our mind.

Because we seldom, if ever, stop our internal monologue when we interact with the world, what we tend to call ‘experience’ is not the experience itself, but the narrated version of it. By the time we become aware of what is going on our ‘experience’ has already been shaped by our expectations, categorized, structured, interpreted, classified, …

Since the act of narration is strictly sequential, and limited to what can be fitted into our mental structures and frameworks, it is by necessity a diminished version of the total experience presenting itself to us. It presents things in sequence that may well have occurred in parallel, or in a different order, or non-consecutively; it leaves out things that do not fit the pre-existing structures, or misrepresents them so they do fit in. This constant narrative provides us with an ordered version of the Universe we live in. It soothes us by giving us a feeling of having some control: we feel we understand events, or at least their causality and sequencing; we feel we can reasonably predict events based on what has gone before; we feel we can control future events by modifying our actions based on our understanding.

To be fair, for many aspects of our daily reality this feeling is not without merit. Many aspects of our daily lives are structured enough to be somewhat understandable, predictable, and malleable. This is especially true for the social aspects of our lives, which are shaped by the collective narratives we all take part in.

But it is bound to fail for the more complex aspects; the chaotic, unbounded, unstructured, unclassified larger reality we only experience the filtered version of.

This leads me to the central thesis this blog revolves around: that our society is almost completely a narrated reality: a fictionalized and heavily filtered version of the reality that exists outside our socialized minds. If that is true it follows that our society can be changed quite simply by changing the collective narrative that keeps it going. Change the story, change history. It’s that simple.

But is it?

The problem with the collective narrative we call society is that it is very resilient and resistant to deliberate change. Sure, it is constantly evolving, adapting to forces both inside and outside its narrative construct. But it seems to do so on its own accord, without deliberate intervention from us humans, happily or unhappily living inside the construct and adapting our interpretation of the world as the narrative dictates. Even people that rebel against the prevailing narrative seem bound to do so using the same structures and frameworks as the narrative they are rebelling against. One could even say that by fighting it they give it credence, and demonstrate they perceive it as real. Real enough to fight against. After all, no one would fight an imaginary dragon, would they?

The societal narrative is both real and fictional, it seems. Fictional in that it consists only in the collective minds of the people taking part; it is a ‘mind-construct’, a fictionalized narrative constructed by all of us to make sense of the world around us, and to provide the mechanisms and controls we seem to need to cohere together as a society. Real in that this narrative has deep, wide, far-reaching consequences for the world we live in. By shaping our behaviors, expectations, and dreams; by informing our understanding of the world; by directing our attention and energy; by limiting and guiding our decision-making; our collective narrative makes us shape a physical reality that matches (as closely as possible) the fictional one. Not consciously, but by the simple fact that the fiction is the framework that informs, shapes, and drives our thoughts and actions.

I believe that the wider the gap is between the collective fiction and the physical reality it lives in, the more friction there will be in our efforts to shape the physical reality to our imagined one. That friction – as all friction does – generates resistance, heat, and debris. Resistance as a measure of how much energy is needed to effect the change or maintain its momentum. Heat as a measure of discomfort, dissatisfaction, unrest caused by our sub-conscious sense that things are not quite as they should be. Debris as a measure of the fall-out of our failure to line both realities up perfectly to each other: the people losing out; the inequality of opportunity and access; the disenfranchised; the discriminated; the exiled….

By this measure, it seems to me, we are not doing so well right now. Looking at the damage we are doing to the environment, the rising inequality, the fragmentation and polarisation we see across the globe, I personally feel our collective narrative has drifted quite far from what it should be. In my darker moments I cannot help but think we have created a collective nightmare we find almost impossible to wake up from.

I will not suggest that humankind should stop its narrative process. It is quite likely impossible for us to do so: it’s the very mechanism we use to be able to cope with the world we live in. But I will argue it is high time we examine this collective narrative we have developed over the past centuries and try, together, deliberately, and consciously to push it in a new direction. Looking at the state of the world, our story has always been a mixed bag: some had it good, some had it bad; wars were waged, peace was made and maintained; civilizations came and went. But on the whole the fallout caused by our fictional mismatches with physical reality was local in character and effect. Even when it wiped out whole civilizations, none of those civilizations covered more than a small part of our planet, leaving the rest of the planet unaffected or resilient enough to absorb the fallout and move on.

Now, for the first time in known human history (for if it did happen before and failed, we would not possibly know about it) we have created a truly global society, with a collective narrative that connects and binds us all. This narrative has brought us astounding technical progress, unimaginable wealth, and an avalanche of scientific discovery. But at the same time it is degrading our physical reality at an accelerating pace. Our planet cannot absorb this level of fallout, this level of mismatch between what we believe and what those believes make us do to our environment. If we do not find a new narrative soon, it will be the end of our existence: the planet will not be able to sustain us, and we will disappear like so many civilizations before us. Only this time it will be a global affair, quite possibly wiping humanity out altogether, or reducing us to a state more primitive than we’ve been in for a long, long, time. It may even be disastrous enough to threaten life on the planet as a whole – we seem to have that power.

So, let’s stop this juggernaut from crushing the world around us. Change the narrative that drives it. Find a new fiction. A fiction that takes all that we have learned, experienced, witnessed and incorporates it into new structures and frameworks to guide our future actions. Let’s find a story that leads to a new balance between us and the physical reality we live in. Let’s do it now, before one will be forced upon us or all possibility to have a collective fiction will be taken from us.