Why people don’t like their beliefs being challenged

A year and a half ago I was sat alone in my apartment working on my computer. When I’d finished, I shut the computer down. It reached the “Windows is shutting down” screen but just hung there, not powering down. After giving it a few minutes, in frustration I finally just flicked the switch off at the mains.

To my horror, the computer stayed on. Same screen. Nothing changing. I panicked and started flicking the mains switch on and off a million times, but still the computer stayed on. My heart started pounding. Something was horribly, horribly wrong. When you cut off electricity to a computer, it’s not supposed to just stay on. If electricity isn’t working the way it’s meant to, maybe nothing is really the way I think it is. Suddenly the entire apartment took on the feeling and appearance of a set on some TV show. All dummy items. Just there for effect.

Finally, I punched the mains switch and the computer clicked off. It turns out it was just a shoddy switch put in by the cowboys who’d built the apartment, and had never been fully clicking off during my frantic pressing. Everything started to look real again. The laws of physics had been restored.

If I had been a bushman who’d never seen a computer before, this event wouldn’t have affected me. It was only because electricity and its predictable nature make up such a core part of my model of reality that its sudden unpredictability was enough to threaten my whole reality model. Electricity is a supporting structure of a modern reality.

When you challenge someone’s beliefs, they get a spike of this raw animal fear. It has particular effect if they feel deep down that what you’re saying has some possibility of being true. Also, the more core the belief — the more it props up their other beliefs and ultimately their whole model of reality — the greater the response. The usual response is anger. Anger is simply fear of loss plus possibility of redemption (whether a real possibility or one concocted by the thinking mind to preserve the stasis of the existing reality).

Humans seem hardwired to want to preserve the continuity of their existing reality at all costs. Their beliefs are the substrate of that reality. They would rather have certainty in continued mediocrity or pain, than uncertainty in the possibility of change — even when that change might be for the better. Fear is the default response to the destabilization of a belief, even if that belief is not serving that person well.

When people first start getting into personal development, a pattern I’ve noticed in myself and others is that, after exposing themselves to the new ideas, they will often start trying to spread those ideas to others and convince them of the correctness of the new model. We do this for a few reasons:

  • As social animals, our models of reality are reinforced strongly if others are also seen to subscribe to them.
  • Talking about your new beliefs — externalizing them — makes them more concrete for you internally.
  • Desire to lead.
  • Desire to genuinely help.

Generally, it’s for you. Not for them. And the response you usually receive from them is anger and ridicule (ridicule is a type of humour, and humour is a tension release valve). You were only open to the new ideas because you were willing to explore your uncertainty at that time. They aren’t. The difference is when they have asked for your advice, which indicates that they are temporarily open to exploring their uncertainty, and may be receptive to new beliefs if they feel those beliefs can give them something better (a path back to certainty, and hopefully a happier certainty). A major factor in whether they will take the new belief on board is how well it gels with their existing beliefs. If it is hugely different, it will tend to be rejected. Shifting to vastly different paradigms tends to happen in smaller steps over time, as new beliefs help to create support structures for the new paradigm, and also have a “filter down” effect to automatically update old beliefs from where a new paradigm can emerge.

Leadership

Strong leaders of a gr0up of people generally arise after the destabilization of the collective reality of that group. Some belief common to all members of that group must have been challenged, thus introducing uncertainty of the current reality and spiking that animal fear response. A leader is simply someone who appears able to restabilize the reality. They can do this by providing scapegoats, or by offering some proposed course of action to “correct” the destabilizing force, or by providing some alternative belief system which explains and contextualizes the disturbance and thus restores certainty via an adjusted model. Often they will use all these methods simultaneously. The problem here is that fear turns off reason, so the proposed “patch” for the reality does not need to be particularly rational for it to be taken up by the group. They would rather have irrational certainty than rational uncertainty. Furthermore, the leader will tend to be chosen based upon how certain he appears of his own model — his conviction. Internal certainty in an individual is marked outwardly by a drop in fear signals, as fear has been reduced. Humans will typically follow the one who appears to have the least fear.

A leader is someone who recognizes and thus validates the current uncertainty of the group (thus providing certainty in the uncertainty, whereby just knowing others are experiencing the same uncertainty can be a stabilizing force), and then proffers some way back to certainty. The malevolence or benevolence of the leader is judged by an individual in retrospect based on how good the outcome was for the individual doing the judging. This is how a figure such as Margaret Thatcher can be seen as a great leader by some and an evil tyrant by others, in almost equal number.

Navigating New Belief Systems

Bringing the focus back to personal development, the key to successfully exploring a new belief system seems to be to be able take on the new idea with full certainty for the period of time it is still “fresh” and appealing, and then judging the usefulness of the belief by its outcomes over time. However, you must also be prepared for the time when uncertainty arises due to new evidence challenging that belief, and be willing to further explore that uncertainty by refining or discarding the belief, or putting it into a larger context (making part of a “master belief system”, an umbrella under which these beliefs operate, and which is also subject to change).

Ultimately, a belief system is just a model of reality, and you will never know the “true” model of reality (if there even is one). So a good guideline is to pick your beliefs based on their beneficial utility for yourself and others, as demonstrated over time unfolding since adopting the beliefs. Writing a journal is a good way to record the outcomes of a belief in order to judge its utility and effectiveness.

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2 Responses

  1. smashthestate says:

    Interesting article. What always bugs me is that I’m so obsessed with my beliefs being ‘realistic’ so it’s kinda hard to delude myself just so I can get some utility from the belief

    • x2 says:

      I have felt that way before, and the way that I feel like I have “overcame” the sense that previously held beliefs were more “realistic” than new ones was by rigorously challenging beliefs that I already held. In doing so, I feel that I now have the overarching “meta-belief” that it is impossible to have an “optimally realistic” belief since any belief system will cause you to focus on the evidence that supports your viewpoint and simultaneously disregard evidence to the contrary. Consequently I feel more emotionally and intellectually flexible when entertaining new maps for reality.

      I have challenged my own beliefs now to the point where it is not generally anxiety-producing for me, but it is certainly not an easy thing to do starting out. In fact, if it does produce fear or anxiety, I know that there is much to be learned from challenging a belief and it is something that I have grown to enjoy delving into further.

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