Reasonable Doubt

REASONABLE DOUBT

The Psychology of Belief

How your brain distorts the world to support your emotional attachments to certain ideas Article by Kate Morgan in Medium

Go to the profile of Kate Morgan

Belief is a powerful and necessary thing, governing our societies, our day-to-day and inner lives, our thoughts, hopes, plans, and relationships. You believe that the plane will leave the runway, that working hard will lead to a promotion, that the candidate you support is the best one for the job. Some things you believe because a pattern of experience suggests you should: The sun has come up every morning so far, so why should tomorrow be any different?

But other things you believe even despite logic and evidence to the contrary: The next lottery ticket you buy will be the big one, you can feel it.

Belief is like that; some things you believe because you just do. No one, no matter how brilliant or how educated, is immune to irrational convictions, says Paul Zak, a neuroscientist at Claremont Graduate University. For example, “Linus Pauling was a two-time Nobel Prize winner, one of the most respected scientists ever, and he believed vitamin C was a cure-all for things and spent a lot of years pushing it despite being totally unsupported by medical evidence,” Zak says. “He was as smart as they come, but he deluded himself that this thing was true when it wasn’t.”

That’s because the relationship between belief and fact often goes one way: “Our brains take the facts and fit them to reinforce our beliefs,” Zak says, and those beliefs don’t need to make sense to be deeply held. It’s a relationship that has both benefits and drawbacks — but knowing when it’s helping and when it’s doing us a disservice requires an understanding of how we form emotional attachments to those beliefs.

“To become aware of our biases, we need to understand how our emotions play a role in our decision-making and belief processes,” says Jonas Kaplan, a professor of psychology at USC’s Brain and Creativity Institute. “Most of the time, it’s a good thing. It’s an old, wise, biological system that’s there to help us, but it’s not always relevant to modern life.”

Our earliest beliefs begin to form long before we’re even really cognizant of them. Our brains, Zak explains, are designed to look for patterns, which “allow us to navigate through the world, survive, and reproduce.” Eventually, our dependence on a pattern becomes a belief in its power.

Some of those early beliefs form through observation. For instance, “by about three months old, children understand gravity,” Zak says. “They believe that if you drop a ball, it will hit the ground. So, if you let go and the ball hovers in the air, those infants will look at it like, ‘What the hell?’ The hovering ball violates this tenet they’ve already come to believe.”

Other beliefs are passed along to us from our families and communities, who transmit many of the foundational ideas that shape how we see the world. Evolutionarily speaking, we are herd animals, and there’s an advantage to going along with the crowd. Those group beliefs, in turn, work their way into our most basic concept of who we are. “The systems in the brain that light up when we access our beliefs are the same systems that help us understand stories,” Kaplan says. “We see a lot of the same brain systems involved when people think about who they are and about the beliefs that are most important to them.”

Kaplan describes a neural system known as the default mode network, a set of interconnected areas of the brain associated with identity and self-representation. “It’s the area that lights up in brain imaging when you ask people to lie there and do nothing,” he says. “Of course, they’re not doing nothing. They’re thinking — about themselves and their future and their plans. It also lights up when people read stories with values they consider deeply important to them and when people think about their political beliefs.”

When your most deeply held beliefs are challenged, “many of the most biologically basic brain systems, those responsible for protecting us, kick into high gear.”

In a study published in 2016 in Scientific Reports, Kaplan and his colleagues conducted brain imaging on participants as they read arguments that contradicted their views on issues, both political and nonpolitical, and documented their neurological response to the opposing information. The results of the team’s persuasive efforts were mixed. “We were able to change minds about things like whether Thomas Edison invented the lightbulb and if multivitamins are important,” he says, but other beliefs — those Kaplan calls the “sacred values” — were all but immovable.

The reason those so-called sacred values are so difficult to change, Kaplan says, is that they’re surrounded by a complex network of mental safeguards. When your most deeply held beliefs are challenged, “many of the most biologically basic brain systems, those responsible for protecting us, kick into high gear,” Kaplan says. “These are things like the amygdala, which tells you when to be afraid, and the insula, the part of your brain that processes visceral feelings from the gut and tells you things like if you’re encountering food that’s bad for you. We have a strong motivation to defend those sacred values.”

Of course, not every belief is sacred. So, what determines the strength of our convictions and sets the ones worth protecting apart from the rest? Most of the time, it’s tied to our emotions.

“When you establish your beliefs, if they include emotional tags, the brain saves that information differently so it’s more accessible and impactful,” Zak says. “The strongest beliefs are tied to things like 9/11 or the birth of a child; highly emotional events create beliefs that are almost impossible to change.”

So much of our identity is social, and so many of our social connections are founded on shared beliefs. Ultimately, Kaplan says, most people find it simpler to maintain both their established beliefs and their social circle than to consider a drastic value shift, for reasons that are as practical as they are mental.

“People say, ‘I can’t change my mind. What would my friends think of me?’ People who radically change their political beliefs, for instance, lose a lot: social relationships, jobs, romantic partners,” he says. “There’s a lot at stake when you’re considering changing a belief.”

Our tendency to cling to our beliefs may feel better than the alternative, but that doesn’t mean it’s in our best interest. Our primary self-defense tactic is to remove the threat and avoid anything that might challenge our worldview, which is how so many of us end up living in a feedback loop, surrounded by people who share the same opinions. The effect is only exacerbated by our reliance on social media.

“The world is an information minefield right now,” Kaplan says. We also need to think carefully about which beliefs we allow into that protected inner circle, he adds. “It makes sense to share beliefs and values with people, and it makes sense to defend those beliefs. But to have beliefs that are epistemological — that things are true or false about the world — and be unwilling to hear otherwise could be very dangerous.”

As for all the other little beliefs tucked away in your head, Zak says, you don’t necessarily need to interrogate everything. “Praying the plane lands safely probably doesn’t change anything, but what’s the harm?” he says. “If holding on to the hope that winning the lottery is the solution brings you comfort, why not?”

“If you don’t have some beliefs, you just can’t get through the world,” Zak says. “These rituals and beliefs are really reinforcing, they’re really nice, and there’s something beautiful and distinctly human about them.”

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Anger and Its Aftermath

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Are you angry right now? If not, when was the last time you felt angry? How did you get angry? My guess is something happened to which you take exception. Someone or something – God, nature, someone you know, a stranger – did something which made you angry. If you can set aside your anger for a moment and think about it rather than indulging it, you will begin to realize that it is not the result of what happened or who did it. It is the result of what you tell yourself about what happened.

If someone bumps into you, listen to what happens in your mind. You may tell yourself that the person is clumsy, stupid or trying to upset you. Your anger arises when you tell yourself that the person should not have done something and that you have a right to be angry about it. So far there is an incident and what you tell yourself about it. If you tell yourself you have been wronged, you are likely to feel angry as a result.

Sometimes you have been wronged deliberately and you have a good reason to be angry. Sometimes you experience an inconvenience or worse which was not intended to harm you. In this case, you are less likely to feel anger. If you find yourself feeling angry, the next question is what to do about it. You have some choices.

You might try to discover whether you were harmed on purpose. If not, you can forgive the person who harmed you accidentally. If you decide you were harmed on purpose, you have other choices. These range from trying to ignore it to reacting in anger and seeking revenge for what was done to you.

How you react also depends on how you tend to think of others. You might see people as generally well intentioned and as a result do not make much of a fuss. You might also have had life experiences which incline you to view others as hostile making you more likely to feel angry and seek a way to even the score.

You have quite a range of choices of how to respond to anger. At the mild end, you can tell the other person you did not like what he or she did. At the other extreme, you can pull out a gun and shoot the other person. There is obviously a wide range of consequences for you and for the other person depending on how you respond. Yet many people do not stop to think about how to react to their anger or about the consequences of how they respond. Indulging angry impulses can have disastrous consequences for you as well as for the target of your anger.

Some people don’t find a good way to handle their anger and instead pile one grudge upon another until the load becomes too much to bear. Then they explode in anger in a way far more severe that the immediate incident requires. Again, dire consequences await all concerned. You can avoid this by being aware of your angry feelings and how they arose, examining your options and choosing an appropriate response.

Action Steps   

 Try to understand your anger before acting on it.

  • Write about your anger to clarify how you feel and what you can do.
  • Make sure someone is at fault instead of harming you accidentally.
  • Discuss the matter with the other person instead of reacting impulsively.
  • Look for common ground whenever possible.

For more on anger, see my Amazon book, How to Transform Your Anger and Find Peace.

 

Using Anger as a Tool and Not a Weapon: An Interview with Arun Ghandi

Over the weekend I had an unexpected and extraordinary experience as I found myself sitting on a sofa in a suburban Philadelphia historical site next to a man who had lived for two years beginning at the age of 12 with his legendary grandfather. Arun Gandhi is the grandson of Mahatma Gandhi and he took up the mantle of peacemaker who speaks to groups large and small about the importance of taking personal responsibility for the mark we make on the world. His unassuming nature and approachable manner made it easy to ask for time with him to peer into the window of the world he would like to witness.

(Excerpt from Edie Weinstein’s article in The Good Men Project. Read more

Inside a Killer’s Mind

A murderer is regarded by the conventional world as something almost monstrous,
but a murderer to himself is only an ordinary man. It is only if the murderer
is a good man that he can be regarded as monstrous.

~Graham Greene~

 We have had more than our share of unexplained shootings lately as well as a growing number of vehicle killings. I do not refer here to gang shootings, organized crime or war killings across the world. I mean what we call mass murders and random shootings now appearing around the world with troubling frequency.

Most of the time we don’t know what provoked the killer to take another’s life or many lives. We blame guns, mental illness, or political beliefs. Several years ago in the midst of the uproar about clergy sexually abusing children, no one seemed to care why they did it. Everyone looked for how to prevent it or punish it. We looked everywhere except inside the mind of the abuser. The same is now true of considering the killers among us.

We are too busy hating the killer to take time to understand him and it is usually him rather than her. Our anger rises to the surface. Our first thoughts are of vengeance and we are relieved if the murderer dies in the process or aftermath of the killing. But what about the murderer’s mind?

Can you imagine killing someone? I don’t think most of us reach this level of hatred without considerable provocation. Yet I do think that anger and hatred very often lie in the background. I don’t mean just a single incident resulting in anger. I dare say that people driven to murder usually experience a long history of very troublesome emotions.

A childhood marked by abuse, neglect, and even hatred shape and direct young or growing minds toward at least the possibility of violence. Being treated as if their lives have no value can leave some resentful toward society where they seem to find no acceptance. Being trained as a war machine can leave veterans estranged from traditional human values. Feeling left out of the privileges others seem to enjoy can build up resentment for society as a whole. Racial prejudice can leave people hating their oppressors. Even white men can feel left out of the benefits they see offered to those of other races.

Fortunately not all of these people end up as murderers. Yet many of them end up living angry lives and sometimes feel pushed to the extreme of violence and even murder. They are often drawn to anger-­driven groups and movements. To my mind, those who reach this extreme state feel isolated, unvalued, persecuted, treated unfairly, and generally left out of society which they come to see as their enemy. Maybe what they want is to be taken seriously or to be recognized as being of some significance.

What can we do about it as a society? That’s another topic which I will leave for the next post.

Action Steps

  • Think of the time in your life when you were your angriest.
  • What got you to that point?
  • How did you want to react?
  • How did you actually handle it?
  • What would have helped you handle it better?
  • How well do you handle your anger now?

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