The Psychology of Belief
How your brain distorts the world to support your emotional attachments to certain ideas
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…