The Psychology of Belief: Hope vs. Reality

In my last post I discussed how delusional beliefs form and why they’re so easy to fall into. It turns out that the belief that we are immune to delusional thinking is a critical component for delusional beliefs to form in the first place. Our beliefs, rather than being a spectrum that ranges from opinion to conviction based on evidence, are built on an entwined mixture of opinions, evidence-based beliefs, and delusions, all of which are interlocking and naturally resistant to new data and evidence.



As I mentioned in my last post, it is important to me to be a person who weeds out delusions in my life. A good friend of mine recently had an article published and told about an exercise he recently went through to challenge his beliefs about GMOs. He had formed a belief based on many of the things I talked about in the previous post. However, he was – and this is critical – willing to admit he might be wrong and examine the evidence on both sides of the issue. As a result, he was able to move past his misconceptions, based on good scientific data. If only everyone had the same willingness to challenge their preconceptions!

Science – A Cautionary Note

But even this belief in science can become the basis for delusional beliefs if we are not careful. Science is a process of continual self-improvement, with a well understood and highly effective method of both obtaining knowledge and self-correcting when things are wrong via careful peer review. The reality, however, is that the history of science is fraught with instances where entrenched (read: delusional) thinking prevented correcting misconceptions, sometimes for decades. Just as bad, even modern scientific research is often not validated. In one particularly damning report, it was discovered that out of 100 peer-reviewed studies in psychological journals, the results reported could only be replicated 36 out of 100 times.

The trouble lies in science funding and incentives. Researchers typically don’t get career advancement opportunities or grant money simply to replicate and validate someone else’s research. As such, a critical component of the scientific method is not performed, leaving any conclusions based on these research results highly suspect.

That’s not to say you shouldn’t rely on science to help form beliefs. Far from it! But we must be careful when evaluating stories, reports, or studies that have yet to be independently verified. The most recent example for me, other than the EmDrive, was the BICEP2 experiment to measure gravitational waves. I, like many others, got extremely excited to learn that we had finally been able to measure a predicted result of the Big Bang. There was immediate hype and talk of Nobel prizes, and yet it turned out to be measuring error and space dust.

One can reasonably argue that this was science doing its job, because in this case the verification step *did* happen. The point, however, is that even science-based skepticism can fall victim to delusional beliefs when the latest scientific finding appears to validate a preconceived notion. Given the high percentage of research reports that are never validated at all, it would be good for us (me) to make sure we are (I am) applying skepticism equally and fairly, even towards – and perhaps especially towards – the field of science itself. To know the right things to do and not to follow through is functionally no different from not knowing them in the first place.

A Discomforting Truth

The key takeaway? If I hold a delusional belief, I would have no way of knowing it at this moment. By definition, I am going to firmly believe any delusions I hold to be true. If I wish to rid myself of delusion, I must first recognize and embrace the fact that I am likely a victim of delusional thinking. This is a sin against reason and truth of which we are all guilty. ALL of us. In fact, the more emotionally connected you are to rejecting this statement, the more likely it is to be true for you. To believe otherwise is merely yet another delusion.

So what do we do about it?

Why This Matters

The first and most important thing we can do is simply admit we are likely victims of delusional thinking, just like everyone else. You probably already believed that those who disagree with you on key issues are delusional, but when you stop and realize that you are really no different than they are, this should cause you to pause and approach conversations about difficult issues with more care and empathy. It is harder to treat someone like an idiot for having delusional beliefs once you realize you are in exactly the same boat. Thus, the platinum rule becomes easier to apply. Like this web comic illustrates…

The second thing you must decide is whether or not you are comfortable living with delusional beliefs or if you want to actively weed them out of your life. If you choose the latter, the first chapter of my book When Seekers Ask actually goes into detail about the strategies I try to employ to confront delusional thinking in my own life, and I would strongly recommend you consider adopting that or a similar approach for your own.

Finally, and most importantly, go forth and have tough but empathy-driven conversations. Start from the standpoint that you are probably wrong.  (I will write another post to explain why the phrase “possibly wrong” does not work in this context.) Be especially suspicious of the beliefs that you hold most dear.  Understand that the person across from you is likely just as reasonable and intelligent as you are. And remember to keep the main things the main things.

In the end, we may disagree on the existence of gods, but if we start from a place of understanding, we can still find significant common ground and work together to make our world a better place for us and for future generations. Those efforts are the things we can all agree will matter.