Sheila, 34, screamed for much of the day.
She’d lament loudly and when challenged, aggressively, that her face wasn’t her own. Her real face had been replaced by someone else’s.
Imagine for a moment the reality of believing your face had been replaced with one you didn’t want (yes I know aging can feel a bit like that!).
The distress of believing completely in a delusion can be enormous. It can also be enormously comforting, depending on what the delusion is.
Sheila was a paranoid schizophrenic, one of many whom I met and liked when I worked in a psychiatric facility. But many of us, outside of a clinical setting, feel many others labour under ‘delusions.’
We can all be induced to believe strange things and having ‘weird’ beliefs has real world consequences. When whole nations or cultures come to believe what are effectively delusions the results can be genocidal catastrophe. But holding unreasonable beliefs can certainly damage the lives of individuals too.
Here I want to explore why and how people come to believe weird stuff.We can all be induced to believe strange things and having 'weird' beliefs has real world consequences. Here I want to explore why and how people come to believe weird stuff.Click To Tweet
If you don’t agree with me you’re ‘irrational’
I wrote a piece on how to dispute irrational beliefs without breaking rapport and then put up the content on YouTube. I was surprised how that video quickly garnered hundreds of thousands of views and many comments, some of them rational.
I suspect many people wanted to discover why those with whom they argued could not possibly see things the way they did. After all, when people disagree with us we may be amazed that an otherwise intelligent person can possibly think so differently to ourselves.
What is ‘weird’ or rational is often in the eye of the beholder.
Of course a person’s beliefs don’t necessarily accord with their IQ because many beliefs are emotional rationalizations rather than the fruits of disinterested truth seeking.
Very clever people are not immune to being swept along by their emotions which is precisely when beliefs stick, no matter how absurd they may be.
We live in an intolerant time in which dissent, differing ideas and beliefs, have come to be seen as stupid at best or plain evil at worst. It’s as though there is a collective phobia of dissenting ideas, at least in some quarters. But what is an irrational belief anyway?
Rational, reasonable or downright wrongheaded?
“Those who are ‘insane’ are not irrational but hyper-rational… in areas where a normal person would rely on intuition, feeling and instinct, on all the things that are very hard to articulate, like the bond between friends, they (the psychotic patient) would effectively be trying to reduce it to a graph or an equation.”
– Dr Iain McGilchrist, author of The Master and His Emissary
Most beliefs are rational but are they reasonable? This is something I’ve thought about since filming that YouTube video, thanks to Iain McGilchrist’s words. So called irrational beliefs may in fact be too rational without being reasonable.
A rational belief might be that to get ahead I need to squash all those who get in my way, to barge over the little old lady who blocks my path to ice cream. If my narrow aim is to get me ice cream then it’s rational to knock said old lady over. Of course it’s not reasonable to do so. So destructive or crazy beliefs aren’t necessarily irrational; they can work within their own narrow limits, but they don’t tend to be reasonable, when wider reality is taken into account.
In the movie ‘Being There’, Peter Sellers’ character has lived a very sheltered life. He has spent his time watching TV and using his TV remote control to change channels. One day he goes into the big bad World and is confronted by aggressive men in the street. He whips out his remote control and tries to get rid of them by changing channels! Now, because of his hitherto experience this wasn’t actually irrational, but it certainly was unreasonable.
Most beliefs have some kind of logical coherence within limited contexts if you apply narrow parameters.
‘Jack the Ripper was a murderer. Jack the Ripper was a man. Therefore men are murderers.’ This makes rational sense but it is light years away from being reasonable.
This is why it can be hard to argue people out of unreasonable beliefs, because they seem logical to the person who holds them. Context is everything and loss of it can lead to terrible places.
Loss of context and the path to evil
Reasonableness relies on intuition, wider awareness, and the bigger picture. If a dictator believes all people of one race are dangerous or even subhuman then it is rational to ‘cleanse’ them from the earth. Rational, within narrow decided upon parameters, but not reasonable.
Fanaticism, extremism, is rational, within its narrow context (which is why it’s hard to logically argue with), but it’s never reasonable when the wider contexts of life are taken into account.
This is why it is so important we examine our own strongly held beliefs.
- What do we mean by what we say we believe?
- Can we understand why someone else would believe something different without demoninsing them?
So something is rational if it fits into the rules of a limited context. Strong emotion limits contextual awareness. This is why those who seek to engineer beliefs in others raise the emotional temperature within that person or group. Context is narrowed during strong emotions such as anger and rational but not reasonable beliefs can be implanted.
We see unreasonable beliefs (those which miss wider context) in people with low self esteem and chronic jealousy, but we see context blind thinking in everyday life as part of everyday and common psychology.
Problems arise when beliefs become not just ideas, which can be reformed, questioned, discussed and explored, but insisted upon immutable truths, especially if those beliefs are unreasonable and context blind.
Fertile ground for tyranny
When a belief hardens into an unquestionable rule then we have the fertilizer for tyranny. Whether it was the Black Shirts of Fascist Italy, the Brown Shirts of Nazi Germany or the Red Guard of Communist China, dissent has to be shut down entirely. And if that meant shutting the person down entirely, well that fitted into right-think and, within their limited context was the ‘moral’ thing to do.
Any own-thought which contradicts official right-think becomes criminal, usually after becoming ‘immoral’ and taboo. Once enough related beliefs are collected together we see ideologies develop. And ideologies can run whole societies, as well as individuals.
Some people, possibly not enough, search for truth for its own sake. They want to know what is, not what ‘should’ be or what it flatters, excites, or soothes them to believe.
Some people believe that all beliefs are equally valid. I would call that a rational but not reasonable belief. It might seem to make sense that no belief is better than another but if you are a victim of racism or genocide or the delusional mindset of someone hearing voices to kill you then it quickly becomes apparant that beliefs have consequences and some of them apply much better to reality than others.
So, if an unreasonable belief isn’t just one that contradicts my belief, which, after all, might be unreasonable in itself, then what is it?
How to spot an unreasonable belief
Unreasonable beliefs make rational sense only within limited contexts. Of course a whole society can become a limited context.
Here are 5 characteristics of these sorts of beliefs:
- They tend to be all or nothing. Extreme ideologies tend to take root in young adults quite easily which is why the young may be targeted for thought reform. The Red Guard as well as the Brown and Black Shirts were often young people such as students. If you are not for us you are against us! Totalitarianism needs totalist thinking which is all or nothing and so the wider context is limited.
- The belief won’t adapt to changing contexts or circumstances. It doesn’t stand up well to ‘reality testing.’ In 1912 a man believed he could fly with wings from the Eiffel Tower in Paris. Birds have wings, he built himself some wings – within logical parameters it was rational. But the consequences were tragic. Does the belief genuinely work when it comes to wide application?
- The ‘carrier’ of the belief becomes emotional when discussing it. Self righteousness is a heady concoction and we can all get whipped up by feelings of moral superiority. This is a sign it was inculcated through indoctrination rather than as a humble search for truth. Becoming highly agitated when discussing one’s beliefs may even indicate that the person on one level doubts the reality of what they profess to believe – the lady doth protest too much. We see this in hypocrisy when a person professes to believe one thing but behaves in ways which contravene their own professed values.
- The belief will often be defended aggressively – even if it’s a belief which professes the value of tolerance.
- Dissent is not tolerated. There is no or little attempt at understanding alternative points of view. It is not up for discussion.
The more we willingly or lazily adopt beliefs without truly reality testing them, perhaps because they are the current fashionable thing to believe, or we’re scared of the consequences of not conforming, the further we get away from living authentically – to use a fashionable phrase. But how do we adopt unreliable ‘truths’ in the first place?
How we come to believe unreasonable ‘truths’
Your beliefs and my beliefs – what we hold to be self-evidently true – may be true because they do well when reality tested. We both perhaps believe it’s wise not to walk off a cliff believing as we do that gravity would work against us. But many of our beliefs may be simply accidental consequences of where and when we were born.
Societally conditioned beliefs
Much of what we come to believe depends on the social and cultural environment we find ourselves in. Socrates called the conditioning of society on the individual, nomos.
It takes an independent mind to see the limits of what are taken as self-evident truths by the particular time and place we find ourselves in.
It’s easier to adopt thinking second hand, through the osmosis effect of group think than to do one’s own thinking. If enough people think the World is flat or a birthmark is a sign of being a witch then, well it’s a self-evident truth isn’t it! And I might have thought these things too had my milieu been 17th century England.
For people to examine the norms, expectations and unconscious and conscious assumptions, not just of themselves but of their culture, can be valuable in helping them not just be a product of the accident of the time and place they happen to inhabit.
The milieu of the in-group tends to come to dominate what attitudes and ideas many of us pick up. Cults will try to limit external view points, dissent, from reaching and therefore influencing the individual. ‘Echo chambers’ are not a new thing. Other groups that come to influence or even determine what we come to believe include our peer group, family, friends and work colleagues.
Of course some cultures inculcate unreasonable beliefs in their people. But when you are in it you are in it as they say. How many of your beliefs were given to you and how many did you truly develop independently might be a question we can ask ourselves. Cultures condition us, emotionally and intellectually. And there are cults within culture. I think all of us should understand what brainwashing is and how it works.
Sometimes it simply suits us to believe something.
Beliefs which meet emotional needs
Environment and other experiences work on personality to produce what we are prone to believe. But often, believing something is the price we pay for deriving satisfaction from believing it – whether it’s a reasonable belief or not. We feel safe and group pressure to believe something might make us feel that if we don’t believe it will be rejected from the group – a terrifying prospect for many people.
So holding a belief may meet one or more of our primal emotional needs. It’s the price of entry, so to speak, for satisfying a need – it suits us to believe it. Maybe it makes us feel morally superior, better than others, or clever or it’s exciting or we feel special in some other way.
So adopting an unreasonable belief can happen through the limited context of a group think (and that group may be a whole society) and the belief will persist if it meets some emotional need, which may simply be the need to conform which we know is immensely powerful.
Many of us form our beliefs around what it suits us to believe and to please other people. We believe what is exciting or emotionally supportive for us to believe or what helps us fit in with those around us.
The genuine search for truth may feel risky but it will help us be truly alive perhaps.
As the Persian Sufi poet Saadi of Shiraz worte:
“Deep in the sea are riches beyond compare. But if you seek safety, it is on the shore.”
How to Reframe in Conversation
Changing unreasonable beliefs is not easy, but one surefire way to fail is to challenge them directly. Mark teaches a more artful way to gently undermine self-damaging beliefs in his online course Conversational Reframing.
Read more therapy techniques »