Why We Hold On to Bad Beliefs
In the mid-1800s, surgeons were wrestling with two problems that had plagued medicine for centuries. First, surgeries were incredibly painful for patients. So painful that, after hearing they needed surgery to survive a life-threatening injury or disease, a lot of people chose to commit suicide instead.1
But then, in 1846 a dentist named William Morton discovered a gas that rendered his patients temporarily unconscious and unable to feel pain. It was a miracle for medicine.
Morton shared his findings with the world in November of 1846, and a mere eight months later, in June of 1847, anesthesia was being used in surgery rooms throughout most of the world.
The second major problem facing surgeons at that time was that many of the surgeries they performed led to fatal infections. This was not only gruesome, but it was also bad for business: dead people tend to not pay their hospital bills.
But by the 1860s, an English surgeon named Joseph Lister had the amazing idea that maybe you should wash your hands before shoving them into an open wound. In fact, by doing so (and sterilizing hospital tools) you could save thousands of lives.
In the late 1860s and early 1870s, he traveled around the world showing his results to every surgeon he could. But unlike William Morton and his discovery of anesthesia, no one listened to Joseph Lister.
Yet, decades went by and surgeons continued to operate on patients with their bare, dirty hands, bloody and soiled frocks, and surgical tools that weren’t even wiped off between surgeries.2
What was the deal? Why was anesthesia adopted so quickly and easily, with little skepticism, while surgical hygiene was ignored? Why was one belief so easy to adopt and the other so impossible to buy into?
Why Bad Beliefs Can Be So Hard to Change
Put simply: people are dumb.
All of us. You. Me. Even incredibly educated doctors. Dumb. Dumb. Dumb.
That’s because, as much as we’d like to think we’re rational, we’re not. We largely adopt beliefs based on our emotional reactions.
For surgeons in the 1800s, the effects of anesthesia were immediately observable. It benefited both the patient and the doctor and it was pretty straightforward: you just make them inhale a gas and boom, they pass out and the doctor can get to work.
It was amazing. Like magic. And because it was so amazing and so easily observable, the practice spread like syphilis in a whorehouse.
Then you have washing your hands and stuff. The effects of antiseptic techniques were much more subtle and, indeed, largely invisible. On top of that, these sterilization techniques really only benefited the patient and it was very difficult and expensive for doctors to implement. Surgeons had to spend a lot more time and money sterilizing their instruments, buying new surgical frocks for every surgery, and using some pretty nasty chemicals that irritated the skin on their delicate, dainty little late-19th century hands.3
It was a pain in the ass. And it wasn’t obvious when lives were saved by it. Therefore, surgeons resisted it. Even though they had been presented a small mountain of scientific evidence supporting the practice.
It’s easy to get disillusioned by stuff like this. But we do it too. Like I said, humans are dumb.
How observable a belief is ends up determining to a great degree how “stuck” we are with it. Even when we logically know it’s probably wrong.
For example, if you wrongly believe you’re short, well, you only have to go stand next to about a dozen people to see how wrong you are.
But if you wrongly believe you’re stupid or unattractive or unlovable, well, you’re going to have a really hard time ever proving otherwise. Because things such as wisdom, attractiveness or lovability are vague, abstract notions. They’re largely up to interpretation. And if you believe you lack them, then you’ll continue to interpret your experiences in a way as to reinforce that.
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How to (Slowly) Change Bad Beliefs
Beliefs and the evidence we use to support them form a feedback loop, each reinforcing the other. If you believe you’re an incompetent oaf that can’t do anything right and suffer from a real lack of confidence, your behavior will reflect that belief, which in turn will provide even more evidence supporting your belief that you’re an incompetent oaf that can’t do anything right. Rinse and repeat.
In order to stop this vicious cycle with bad beliefs, then, we have two options:
- Option 1: We can try to change the belief itself;
- Option 2: We can try to change the evidence we use to support the belief.
It’s probably no surprise to you that Option 1, while sounding simple, is incredibly difficult to do. Let’s pretend I offered you $1,000 if you believed your name is Mona Lisa and you only have one leg. It’d be damn near impossible to convince yourself of those things simply because you want to believe them. Again, we need evidence. And last time I checked, your name wasn’t Mona Lisa. Nor did you only have one leg.
So that brings us to Option 2: changing the evidence we use to support our beliefs. The beauty of option 2 is that while we don’t have direct control over a lot of our beliefs, we have much more control over the evidence we use to support our beliefs. So by changing the evidence, we can, over time, influence our beliefs. Think of it as fucking up a high profile court case. You want the jury to think you’re a badass, right? Well, time to doctor some evidence.
1. Identify the Evidence That Supports Your Beliefs
Self-awareness time. Ask yourself some simple questions and demand some painfully honest answers from yourself.
(Pro-tip: when self-questioning, if an answer ever makes you feel uncomfortable, then there’s likely some truth to it.)
Here are a couple examples:
- If you believe you’re an unhealthy person, what evidence do you have that supports that? Are you overweight and out of shape and so you think that, well, that’s just how you are and, hey, you can’t do much about bad genetics, can you? Do you eat takeout and other overly processed food the majority of the time because you think you don’t have the time or the skills or patience to learn to cook healthy meals? Do you find it extremely difficult to peel yourself off the couch and get some exercise because your crummy job takes up all your time and you’re just exhausted by the end of the day?
- If you believe you’re not attractive and don’t deserve to be in a relationship with an amazing person, what evidence do you have that led to that belief? Did you grow up poor or in a broken home and think that no one wants to be with someone who grew up that way? Have you suffered some real-shit-type trauma and, as a result, feel unworthy of being loved and appreciated? Or maybe your last relationship or four ended in disaster and so you reason that of course you’re not good at relationships?
2. Question the Flimsy, Vague Evidence and Decide If It’s Even Helpful At All
One of the ideas I talk about in my ebook, Three Ideas that Can Change Your Life, is believing what’s helpful to you. This doesn’t mean you should delude yourself and believe you’re rich when you’re actually poor and go run up a bunch of credit card debt.
In fact, a belief like that is neither true nor helpful if that is your situation. To believe what’s helpful for you, you first have to separate the facts of your situation from how you interpret those facts.
It might be 100% true that you grew up in a broken home and have had some pretty traumatic and disastrous relationships in the past. But does it necessarily follow that this means you’re not attractive and wouldn’t make a good partner? Of course not.
You could say that, actually, it makes you a pretty interesting person and if you only showed a little vulnerability and opened up a little about it, people could see that you’re a pretty complex and fascinating person who’s been through some shit and lived to tell about it. That’s a hell of a lot more interesting—and attractive—than talking about your favorite TV show, isn’t it?
3. Focus on the Concrete Evidence in Your Life
I used to believe I was a socially awkward, anxious, unattractive person. The funny thing, though, was that I wasn’t. I got along great with people. I was just terrified to talk to them.
I had these irrational beliefs that people wouldn’t like me unless they could somehow benefit from me. And this had the awful effect of only inviting people into my life who wanted something from me.
Eventually, I realized that a lot of my beliefs about people and why they would like me (or not like me) was stuff that I made up in my head. It wasn’t connected to reality. And the real experiences that I did have were almost always positive.
My problem was that I bought into this abstract belief that I was socially awkward when all the real evidence in my life didn’t support this belief at all. But abstract beliefs about ourselves are hard to change precisely because they can be so far removed from reality. This layer of abstraction protects these beliefs from all the counter-evidence in our lives. And so the more abstract a belief is, the harder it is for us to dislodge it from our brains.
But if we instead focus on the real, concrete evidence in our lives that actually supports healthy beliefs about ourselves, we can eventually begin to replace all those unhealthy beliefs. Each little piece of evidence is like a pin in these big, hairy, unhelpful beliefs, and the more evidence we find, the more easily we can deflate them and simultaneously begin to build healthier beliefs that actually benefit us.
It took surgeons several decades to adopt modern antiseptic techniques that ultimately saved millions and millions of lives (and counting). But they did it. Slowly but surely, they did it. They began to sterilize their surgical tools, then they washed their hands and wore gloves, then they wore sterile clothing, began to keep operating rooms cleaner, and taught patients how to care for their wounds.
Today the methods of antiseptic surgery are unquestioned. They’re a fact of medicine. Everyone believes them.
In the same way, you can slowly experiment with all the evidence in your life that revolves around the big beliefs you want to change. Find all the evidence and underlying assumptions about that evidence that reinforces your beliefs and begin to question them relentlessly. Then get out of your head and start looking for all the hard evidence in your life that supports healthy beliefs. And finally, enjoy the process of change.
Slowly, your big core beliefs can change for the better. And they do so almost by themselves. You’ll have no choice but to accept the belief that you’re a healthy person or a social person because the evidence will be shouted in your face every time you slam a protein shake after a sweat-dripping workout or share a laugh with a complete stranger.
- There’s an excellent episode of RadioLab that covers a brief history of anesthesia and how, to this day, we’re still not really sure how it works.↵
- This would even lead to the death of President James Garfield in 1881 after he was shot in the back in an assassination attempt. For 11 weeks, doctors probed his wound with their bare fingers and dirty tools in an attempt to locate and remove the bullet. Garfield died of a secondary infection.↵