[Paleopsych] Why Bad Beliefs Don't Die

Steve Hovland shovland at mindspring.com
Sat Jan 8 16:00:46 UTC 2005

Because beliefs are designed to enhance our ability to survive, they are 
biologically designed to be strongly resistant to change. To change 
beliefs, skeptics must address the brain's "survival" issues of meanings 
and implications in addition to discussing their data.
Gregory W. Lester
Because a basic tenet of both skeptical thinking and scientific inquiry is 
that beliefs can be wrong, it is often confusing and irritating to 
scientists and skeptics that so many people's beliefs do not change in the 
face of disconfirming evidence. How, we wonder, are people able to hold 
beliefs that contradict the data?
This puzzlement can produce an unfortunate tendency on the part of 
skeptical thinkers to demean and belittle people whose beliefs don't change 
in response to evidence. They can be seen as inferior, stupid, or crazy. 
This attitude is born of skeptics' failure to understand the biological 
purpose of beliefs and the neurological necessity for them to be resilient 
and stubbornly resistant to change. The truth is that for all their 
rigorous thinking, many skeptics do not have a clear or rational 
understanding of what beliefs are and why even faulty ones don't die 
easily. Understanding the biological purpose of beliefs can help skeptics 
to be far more effective in challenging irrational beliefs and 
communicating scientific conclusions.
Biology and Survival
Our brain's primary purpose is to keep us alive. It certainly does more 
than that, but survival is always its fundamental purpose and always comes 
first. If we are injured to the point where our bodies only have enough 
energy to support consciousness or a heartbeat but not both, the brain has 
no problem choosing-it puts us into a coma (survival before consciousness), 
rather than an alert death-spiral (consciousness before survival).
Because every brain activity serves a fundamental survival purpose, the 
only way to accurately understand any brain function is to examine its 
value as a tool for survival. Even the difficulty of successfully treating 
such behavioral disorders as obesity and addiction can only be understood 
by examining their relationship to survival. Any reduction in caloric 
intake or in the availability of a substance to which an individual is 
addicted is always perceived by the brain as a threat to survival. As a 
result the brain powerfully defends the overeating or the substance abuse, 
producing the familiar lying, sneaking, denying, rationalizing, and 
justifying commonly exhibited by individuals suffering from such disorders. 
Senses and Beliefs
One of the brain's primary tools for ensuring survival is our senses. 
Obviously, we must be able to accurately perceive danger in order to take 
action designed to keep us safe. In order to survive we need to be able to 
see the lion charging us as we emerge from our cave or hear the intruder 
breaking into our house in the middle of the night.
Senses alone, however, are inadequate as effective detectors of danger 
because they are severely limited in both range and scope. We can have 
direct sensory contact with only a small portion of the world at any one 
time. The brain considers this to be a significant problem because even 
normal, everyday living requires that we constantly move in and out of the 
range of our perceptions of the world as it is right now. Entering into 
territory we have not previously seen or heard puts us in the dangerous 
position of having no advance warning of potential dangers. If I walk into 
an unfamiliar building in a dangerous part of town my survival 
probabilities diminish because I have no way of knowing whether the roof is 
ready to collapse or a gunman is standing inside the doorway.
Enter beliefs. "Belief" is the name we give to the survival tool of the 
brain that is designed to augment and enhance the danger-identification 
function of our senses. Beliefs extend the range of our senses so that we 
can better detect danger and thus improve our chances of survival as we 
move into and out of unfamiliar territory. Beliefs, in essence, serve as 
our brain's "long-range danger detectors."
Functionally, our brains treat beliefs as internal "maps" of those parts of 
the world with which we do not have immediate sensory contact. As I sit in 
my living room I cannot see my car. Although I parked it in my driveway 
some time ago, using only immediate sensory data I do not know if it is 
still there. As a result, at this moment sensory data is of very little use 
to me regarding my car. In order to find my car with any degree of 
efficiency my brain must ignore the current sensory data (which, if relied 
on in a strictly literal sense, not only fails to help me in locating my 
car but actually indicates that it no longer exists) and turn instead to 
its internal map of the location of my car. This is my belief that my car 
is still in my driveway where I left it. By referring to my belief rather 
than to sensory data, my brain can "know" something about the world with 
which I have no immediate sensory contact. This "extends" my brain's 
knowledge of and contact with the world.
The ability of belief to extend contact with the world beyond the range of 
our immediate senses substantially improves our ability to survive. A 
caveman has a much greater ability to stay alive if he is able to maintain 
a belief that dangers exist in the jungle even when his sensory data 
indicate no immediate threat. A police officer will be substantially more 
safe if he or she can continue to believe that someone stopped for a 
traffic violation could be an armed psychopath with an impulse to kill even 
though they present a seemingly innocuous appearance.
Beyond the Sensory
Because beliefs do not require immediate sensory data to be able to feed 
valuable survival information to the brain, they have the additional 
survival function of providing information about the realm of life that 
does not deal directly with sensory entities. This is the area of 
abstractions and principles that involves such things as "reasons," 
"causes," and "meanings." I cannot hear or see the "reason" called a "low 
pressure zone" that makes a thunderstorm rain on my parade, so my ability 
to believe that low pressure is the reason assists me. If I were to rely 
strictly on my senses to determine the cause of the storm I could not tell 
why it occurred. For all I know it was dragged in by invisible flying 
gremlins that I need to shoot with my shotgun if I want to clear away the 
clouds. Therefore my brain's reliance on my "belief" in the reason called 
"low pressure," rather than on sensory data (or, as in the case of my car, 
my lack of it) assists in my survival: I avoid an experience of 
incarceration with myriad dangerous characters following my arrest for 
shooting into the air at those pesky little gremlins.
The Resilience of Beliefs
Because senses and beliefs are both tools for survival and have evolved to 
augment one another, our brain considers them to be separate but equally 
important purveyors of survival information. The loss of either one 
endangers us. Without our senses we could not know about the world within 
our perceptual realm. Without our beliefs we could not know about the world 
outside our senses or about meanings, reasons, or causes.
This means that beliefs are designed to operate independent of sensory 
data. In fact, the whole survival value of beliefs is based on their 
ability to persist in the face of contradictory evidence. Beliefs are not 
supposed to change easily or simply in response to disconfirming evidence. 
If they did, they would be virtually useless as tools for survival. Our 
caveman would not last long if his belief in potential dangers in the 
jungle evaporated every time his sensory information told him there was no 
immediate threat. A police officer unable to believe in the possibility of 
a killer lurking behind a harmless appearance could easily get hurt or 
As far as our brain is concerned, there is absolutely no need for data and 
belief to agree. They have each evolved to augment and supplement one 
another by contacting different sections of the world. They are designed to 
be able to disagree. This is why scientists can believe in God and people 
who are generally quite reasonable and rational can believe in things for 
which there is no credible data such as flying saucers, telepathy, and 
When data and belief come into conflict, the brain does not automatically 
give preference to data. This is why beliefs-even bad beliefs, irrational 
beliefs, silly beliefs, or crazy beliefs-often don't die in the face of 
contradictory evidence. The brain doesn't care whether or not the belief 
matches the data. It cares whether the belief is helpful for survival. 
Period. So while the scientific, rational part of our brains may think that 
data should supercede contradictory beliefs, on a more fundamental level of 
importance our brain has no such bias. It is extremely reticent to jettison 
its beliefs. Like an old soldier with an old gun who does not quite trust 
that the war is really over, the brain often refuses to surrender its 
weapon even though the data say it should.
"Inconsequential" Beliefs
Even beliefs that do not seem clearly or directly connected to survival 
(such as our caveman's ability to believe in potential dangers) are still 
closely connected to survival. This is because beliefs do not occur 
individually or in a vacuum. They are related to one another in a tightly 
interlocking system that creates the brain's fundamental view of the nature 
of the world. It is this system that the brain relies on in order to 
experience consistency, control, cohesion, and safety in the world. It must 
maintain this system intact in order to feel that survival is being 
successfully accomplished.
This means that even seemingly small, inconsequential beliefs can be as 
integral to the brain's experience of survival as are beliefs that are 
"obviously" connected to survival. Thus, trying to change any belief, no 
matter how small or silly it may seem, can produce ripple effects through 
the entire system and ultimately threaten the brain's experience of 
survival. This is why people are so often driven to defend even seemingly 
small or tangential beliefs. A creationist cannot tolerate believing in the 
accuracy of data indicating the reality of evolution not because of the 
accuracy or inaccuracy of the data itself, but because changing even one 
belief related to matters of the Bible and the nature of creation will 
crack an entire system of belief, a fundamental worldview and, ultimately, 
their brain's experience of survival.
Implications for Skeptics
Skeptical thinkers must realize that because of the survival value of 
beliefs, disconfirming evidence will rarely, if ever, be sufficient to 
change beliefs, even in "otherwise intelligent" people. In order to 
effectively change beliefs skeptics must attend to their survival value, 
not just their data-accuracy value. This involves several elements.
First, skeptics must not expect beliefs to change simply as the result of 
data or assuming that people are stupid because their beliefs don't change. 
They must avoid becoming critical or demeaning in response to the 
resilience of beliefs. People are not necessarily idiots just because their 
beliefs don't yield to new information. Data is always necessary, but it is 
rarely sufficient.
Second, skeptics must learn to always discuss not just the specific topic 
addressed by the data, but also the implications that changing the related 
beliefs will have for the fundamental worldview and belief system of the 
affected individuals. Unfortunately, addressing belief systems is a much 
more complicated and daunting task than simply presenting contradictory 
evidence. Skeptics must discuss the meaning of their data in the face of 
the brain's need to maintain its belief system in order to maintain a sense 
of wholeness, consistency, and control in life. Skeptics must become adept 
at discussing issues of fundamental philosophies and the existential 
anxiety that is stirred up any time beliefs are challenged. The task is 
every bit as much philosophical and psychological as it is scientific and 
Third, and perhaps most important, skeptics must always appreciate how hard 
it is for people to have their beliefs challenged. It is, quite literally, 
a threat to their brain's sense of survival. It is entirely normal for 
people to be defensive in such situations. The brain feels it is fighting 
for its life. It is unfortunate that this can produce behavior that is 
provocative, hostile, and even vicious, but it is understandable as well.
The lesson for skeptics is to understand that people are generally not 
intending to be mean, contrary, harsh, or stupid when they are challenged. 
It's a fight for survival. The only effective way to deal with this type of 
defensiveness is to de-escalate the fighting rather than inflame it. 
Becoming sarcastic or demeaning simply gives the other person's defenses a 
foothold to engage in a tit-for-tat exchange that justifies their feelings 
of being threatened ("Of course we fight the skeptics-look what uncaring, 
hostile jerks they are!") rather than a continued focus on the truth.
Skeptics will only win the war for rational beliefs by continuing, even in 
the face of defensive responses from others, to use behavior that is 
unfailingly dignified and tactful and that communicates respect and wisdom. 
For the data to speak loudly, skeptics must always refrain from screaming.
Finally, it should be comforting to all skeptics to remember that the truly 
amazing part of all of this is not that so few beliefs change or that 
people can be so irrational, but that anyone's beliefs ever change at all. 
Skeptics' ability to alter their own beliefs in response to data is a true 
gift; a unique, powerful, and precious ability. It is genuinely a "higher 
brain function" in that it goes against some of the most natural and 
fundamental biological urges. Skeptics must appreciate the power and, 
truly, the dangerousness that this ability bestows upon them. They have in 
their possession a skill that can be frightening, life-changing, and 
capable of inducing pain. In turning this ability on others it should be 
used carefully and wisely. Challenging beliefs must always be done with 
care and compassion.
Skeptics must remember to always keep their eye on the goal. They must see 
the long view. They must attempt to win the war for rational beliefs, not 
to engage in a fight to the death over any one particular battle with any 
one particular individual or any one particular belief. Not only must 
skeptics' methods and data be clean, direct, and unbiased, their demeanor 
and behavior must be as well.
Related Information
Search CSICOP: belief* </q/csicop/belief*>

About the Author
Gregory W. Lester, Ph.D. is a psychologist on the graduate faculty of the 
University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas, and in private practice in 
Houston and in Denver, Colorado. Address correspondence to: Gregory W. 
Lester, Ph.D., 111 Harrison St., Suite 1, Denver, Colorado 80206.

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