Do our beliefs have to be literally correct in order to create useful results in our lives? Posing this question another way, we could ask ourselves what matters more to us – “being literally correct” or “getting what we want?”
Of course, a question that is not often asked about the idea of correctness is, “correct according to whose model of the world?”
Setting this critical question aside for now, we can break beliefs down along two axes – Useful / Useless, and Objectively True / Objectively False. “Useful” and “Useless” are defined here as getting us what we want – for example, helping us reach a goal or objective of some kind.
The resulting four quadrants are the following.
Objectively true / Useful – Reality-based
“Gravity exists, and jumping off a building is dangerous.”
Beliefs that are both true and useful are things like laws of nature, well-tested scientific theories, and various “rules of thumb” that always work and help us go about our daily lives. They tend to be backed up by good evidence, good theoretical models, and large amounts of work performed by many intelligent people.
These are the kind of beliefs that people learn in courses in science, engineering, mathematics, and other highly-accurate maps and models of the world. These beliefs are responsible for the forward progress of technology, innovation, and other good things.
Objectively False / Useful – Delusional but valuable
“Every single prospect whom I talk to, really wants to buy my product.”
We can imagine situations where the mere act of holding a belief can deliver a powerful push to the eventual fulfillment and justification of that belief. These types of beliefs are more likely to be present in the social and interpersonal world.
Suppose a salesperson in a very competitive industry had a 5% conversion rate as measured over the past year. While the “rational” belief would be that a given sales meeting would have a 95% chance to not lead to a sale, if that salesperson entered those meetings focusing on that fact, their sales would probably drop even lower. A delusional belief is quite useful in this situation.
Objectively true / Useless – Why bother giving attention to this?
“Some people don’t like me.”
A pessimistic belief like “some people don’t like me” is almost certainly true. Even people who seem to be universally loved have their detractors and opponents. While beliefs like this may be objectively true, with a high degree of certainty, there’s simply no value in holding them and giving attention to them, is there? Better to assume the opposite until proven otherwise – and even after that.
Objectively false / Useless – Contrary to observable reality
“Dolphins have wings and can fly across Asia.”
No belief about the natural world around us, that is demonstrably false, is likely to be very useful. When something can be tested by “objective” science and resolved as true or false (or as close as possible under certain experimental conditions, with certain equipment, and so forth), then it’s almost never useful to believe the opposite. It doesn’t stop people from trying, but their results aren’t always good.
Guess what – your beliefs have already been chosen for you!
Here’s the funny part. You may already know that our brains can be viewed as having two different parts – a Thinker and a Prover. It’s known that what the Thinker thinks, the Prover proves. (This idea is due to the late Robert A. Wilson.) Because of this, the categories of “objectively true” and “objectively false” that I’ve so carefully laid out, are not universally agreed upon. Far from it.
People’s individual beliefs and systems of beliefs are actually highly stable entities – comprised of thought – that are highly resistant to external influence.
Instead of acting like an perfectly objective scientist with no personal stake in one side or the other, most people act like trial lawyers with a client that they have sworn to defend at all costs. However, in this case their client is not a person, but a prejudice, emotion or gut feeling.
People make up their minds first, and then seek out the stories and evidence after the fact, that will justify them already having made up their mind. Instead of choosing their beliefs, most people allow their beliefs to choose them.
There are a few areas of belief that hold near-universal agreement – “the sun will rise tomorrow”, “gravity exists” – and things like that. However, most of the deepest beliefs that people hold depend intimately on their personal history and physiology – their family and cultural background, the communities that they have participated in, and the prejudices, gut feelings, and quirks associated with and emerging from the makeup of their own particular brain and body.
The set of beliefs that it’s possible for a person to hold is constrained by their model of the world. A biologist trained at traditional universities and employed in a pharmaceutical company is not terribly likely to believe in a literal Biblical interpretation of the origins of life on earth. Conversely, a pastor trained at literalist Bible colleges and working for a theologically conservative church, probably won’t believe in the theory of evolution. I’m not saying one is wrong and the other is right – however, I am saying that each one is viewing and interpreting their reality using radically different maps and models.
This is all great news, because it means that as conscious self-programming entities, we are far more able to rebalance our portfolio of beliefs that we might have previously guessed. Our beliefs are not our identities – in fact, we are so much more than just our beliefs, though some people identify so strongly with their beliefs that they confuse the two.
Changing our physical environment, changing our social connections, and changing our thinking, are all ways to gradually move from holding disempowering beliefs to empowering beliefs. Of these, most fundamental and foundational is changing our thinking. Because beliefs are just structures made up of habitual or repetitive thought, by changing our thoughts, we can change our beliefs.
And once we experience ourselves as able to do that, then we can believe anything we choose to.
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