Believe it or not!

I am on the train back from part of my NLP Masters course in London. This module was on Beliefs – they are powerful things: people die for them. They exert a powerful effect on our lives, sometimes to our benefit, sometimes to our detriment, and we had a fascinating time exploring the way beliefs work.

According to current Psychological theory, we have two different ways of thinking, called (rather unimaginatively) System 1 and System 2. System 1 is what we use as a first option: it is good at recognising patterns and identifying potential dangers. It is good at leaping to a conclusion from limited information allowing us to respond quickly, and in evolutionary terms that it a big advantage – slow responses mean a high risk of becoming someone else’s dinner. System 1 is not very accurate, but it is close enough for many normal circumstances.

System 2 is much slower and takes much more effort. This is the System we use to solve mathematical puzzles or work out complex problems. It is much more accurate than System 1, but at the cost of speed and effort, so we tend to avoid using it if we can. It is the predominance of System 1 that explains many of our biases and inconsistencies, our irrational responses and our vulnerability to advertising, for example.

Beliefs are formed when we encounter a situation in which we are at a loss – we have no experience or knowledge that helps us know how to react. Normally we are in the presence of a ‘Significant Other’ (since many beliefs are formed in childhood, this is most commonly our parents, but it may be our peers or the Media, or the ‘Other’ may be significant by being absent) and we form a rule for behaviour either directly or indirectly from the response (or lack of response) of the ‘Significant Other’. That rule may be something the ‘Significant Other’ intended or it may be a completely unintentional lesson, created by our response to something we have misunderstood or only partially understood. This ‘prototype belief’ then gets reinforced by being used in other situations until it becomes so familiar that we mistake it for a truth.

Beliefs are part of our System 1 thinking: they form our ‘map’ of the world and help us navigate our way by NOT being too accurate. The ‘real’ world requires us to manipulate too much information: we are constantly filtering out information to enable us to focus on what is essential and avoid sensory overload. Our minds are very good at noticing the unusual and we depend on that ability to allow us to ignore the vast majority of the information we receive about all the things that are normal in our environment.

The map we use, therefore, is not the actual territory itself and it is essential that it isn’t. If the map accurately contained all the information that the territory contains, it would be unusable: consider a literal map, of the kind we use to navigate our way from A to B. The map shows a representation of the roads or footpaths and other features in the landscape and how they relate to each other. The territory it represents contains vastly more detail: individual blades of grass on the roadside, individual wild flowers, each with individual petals, individual stones and rocks, individual buildings made of individual bricks, and so on. If we were required to process all the information contained in the territory we would be paralysed by information overload.

Our beliefs, which make up our personal ‘map’ provide us with a System 1 shortcut that allows us to ignore the vast majority of the information in ‘real’ world situations and form judgements quickly with minimum effort. To do this, it is essential that the beliefs are not too accurate – the greater the detail they contain, the greater the effort it takes to use them and the slower our response. Speed of response is highly valuable and beliefs, therefore, have to reflect greatly simplified versions of ‘real’ life. Our beliefs are not, therefore, the absolute truths we tend to

assume them to be, but rather a set of rules we use to help us navigate the world and they may be helpful or unhelpful. They are there to help us do things, but sometimes they have the opposite effect and prevent us doing things, limiting our lives.

We use maps of different scale and containing different information, depending on whether we are driving from London to Edinburgh or walking across the North Pennines. Each is useful to the respective task: the Road Atlas ignores smaller roads and any topological information, focussing on major roads and covering a large area. It isn’t really true to life, but for ease of navigating from one city to another it is more helpful. Similarly the Ordnance Survey map shows footpaths, areas of woodland and contour lines, covering a very restricted area and ignoring both most of the world and fine detail, for ease of navigating across the countryside. Each map is a very partial representation of the territory, using approximations and selected information only and as a consequence a Road Atlas is of no help when walking in the North Pennines and an OS map of the North Pennines is of no help when driving from London to Edinburgh.

Similarly different circumstances can render a belief useful or limiting, and as the circumstances of our lives change we may need to allow a new belief to supercede an old, no longer useful, one. For a small child, believing in Father Christmas is useful – less so for a thirty year old! As small children we believe our parents to be all-knowing and all-powerful ; changing that belief is an important part of growing up. It is important for our development that we are able to let go of old, no longer useful, beliefs and allow new, more useful, ones to replace them.

I used to believe that the reason for the QWERTY keyboard was in order to slow down typists so that the keys of early typewriters didn’t get jammed. It turns out that the real reason is that typewriters were developed in the days when Morse Code was commonly used and certain letters can be difficult to distinguish from each other. By grouping them together on the keyboard where the same finger would be used for all the possible letters, it was easier for the radio operator to wait until the context made it clear which letter it was before hitting a key. That is just one of the beliefs that I have recently changed.

We have many beliefs about health: another belief that I have changed is that any problem that has been there for a long time will take a long time to fix. That is not necessarily true – however, holding that belief will, itself, slow down the healing process and therefore it will tend to become a self-fulfilling prophesy. A quote often attributed to Henry Ford is: ‘If you think you can do a thing or think you can’t do a thing, you’re right.’ In much the same way, our beliefs have a profound effect on our health and believing I won’t get better will go a long way toward ensuring I don’t. By the same token, believing I will get better substantially improves my prospects of doing just that.