Water diviners are people who believe that if they hold a switch a certain way (a switch is a slender, flexible shoot cut from a tree) it will bend downwards when they are above underground water. (Yes, that is their belief. I’m not making this up.)
Every few years The Australian Skeptics arrange a test for water diviners. It’s a test both parties believe to be fair. If a water diviner passes the test in Australia they receive A$100,000. If they pass the test in the U.S.A. they get a million dollars. Plus, the diviner gets free publicity if they want it.
No one has yet passed the test.
Is the test fair to the water diviners? Judge for yourself: water diviners are taken to a paddock in which six large holes have been dug. Six full barrels of water are rolled into the holes and covered with a sheet of wood. The water diviners are then asked to walk on the sheets of wood over each of the six covered barrels, to see if their water divining switches are working. The diviners duly walk over the area and find that yes, their switches do indeed work: the switches bend downwards each time the diviner stands above a barrel of water.
That means the conditions are favourable to the switches working.
Part Two of the test: The diviners are taken away and three of the barrels are replaced with empty barrels.
Can you see what’s coming?
Yes, the diviners are brought back to the site and told the situation. To get the prize, all they have to do is let their switches indicate which three of the six barrels still hold water. That should be easy for the diviners because they have already confirmed that their switches can detect full barrels.
‘As easy as shitting in bed and kicking it out with your feet.’
Yet, not one of the diviners tested over the years has detected which barrels held the water and which barrels didn’t – not above levels expected by chance. Not one of them passed the test.
One diviner accused the Skeptic officials of cheating, but was silenced when three full barrels and three empty barrels were revealed.
Two diviners claimed that the negativity of the sceptics interfered with their detecting powers. It was pointed out that their switches worked well when they knew all six barrels held water, and the sceptics were just as sceptical then.
Others were at a loss to explain why their switches failed to work. Yet not one diviner was persuaded that they could not divine water! They continued to hold their beliefs. Why? Because they had an emotional belief in their abilities. Nothing will change their minds.
There is even a name for it: Belief Perseverance, or Conceptual Conservatism “is maintaining a belief despite new information that firmly contradicts it. Such beliefs may even be strengthened when others attempt to present evidence debunking them, a phenomenon known as the backfire effect.” Wikipedia.
We all have emotional beliefs, and it’s the false ones we hold dear. That’s because deep down we know our false beliefs are questionable, so we prop them up by building around them a scaffolding of related beliefs. (We do it without even being aware of it.) Unconsciously, we hope that if we insulate ourselves from the truth we will protect ourselves from it. However, by doing so we isolate ourselves from the truth. That stops us growing. And, our beliefs, protected from healthy scrutiny, grow unchecked and become distorted. When someone proves our emotional belief wrong, for a second or two we feel disoriented, and jump back into that comfortable belief.
Water divining is not important; it’s a harmless self-delusion. It’s when we believe we are worthless or stupid or superior . . . or when we hold prejudices, that we have a problem. That’s why we need to become aware of our false beliefs, because by being aware of them we can reduce their influence upon us. (We usually don’t realise our belief is an emotional one; we assume it is an accurate view of how things are. So, being aware that it just might be an emotional belief can make a difference.)
If that zebra foal could accept that its attachment to the cola sign was just an emotional belief imprinted upon it, it would make the more rational decision to hang around Mum. In the same way, we may make sharper decisions when we accept that our disabling beliefs might be false, even though they feel so true. We have a deeper, more rounded understanding of the situation.
For example, if someone were to feel it would be catastrophic to be disliked by others, but realised it was only an emotional belief, then that person could find it easier to behave in a less needy and less sycophantic way. And feel more confident about themselves.
Or, if someone felt certain that there is truth in astrology, and justified that belief by claiming it’s real and scientific, then in conversation that person would look like a goose. But if that person felt sure that there is truth in astrology, but allowed commonsense to tell them it just might be make-believe, that person could avoid looking like a goose.
We have an obligation to ourselves to make sharp, responsible decisions, despite the voice in our head giving us poor advice. Recognising our emotional beliefs is a step towards fulfilling that responsibility.
It’s those sharper decisions that make life easier. We begin to trust ourselves and the decisions we make, and we develop confidence in our ability to handle life. We add to our resilience.
In short, the next time you feel hopeless, or stupid, or poor, or defective, or better than other people, remind yourself that it’s an emotional belief, even though it feels so right. Don’t waste time debating the truth of your belief (unless you are practising cognitive behavioural therapy); instead, make the right decision, even if it feels wrong.
Discover your emotional beliefs.
Step 1. Grab a sheet of paper and a pen. Make two lists of your strong beliefs: about yourself, and about the outside world. Include beliefs that are obviously right, rational, self-evident, justified and sensible. Don’t even look at step 2 until you have finished making the lists.
If you are not 100% sure your belief is correct, don’t include it. Only include the beliefs you are sure about.
For example, with beliefs about yourself you might write something like:
‘I believe it’s imperative for me to:
– be honest.’
– put my family first.’
– avoid asking people for a favour unless it’s absolutely necessary.’
– be attractive for my spouse.’
– show no weakness.’
– avoid being dominated by others.’
– never ask the government for money.’
– always try hard at what I do.’
– accept that I’m defective.’
For beliefs about the world you might write: ‘I believe:
– in ghosts.’
– education should be free.’
– we should have capital punishment.’
– there is only one honest political party.’
– the moon landing in 1969 didn’t happen.’
– refugees should be welcomed here.’
– it’s a jungle out there.’
Step 2. Look at the first belief you wrote and answer, with thought, all the following questions.
Q1. What would change my mind? What evidence would there need to be?
Q2. If someone challenges my belief, do I immediately try to prove the person wrong?
Q3. Have I become irritated when my belief has been challenged?
Q4. When someone challenges my belief do I tend to go off on a tangent? Do I avoid the question? Do I answer a different question?
Q5. Do I search for examples to support my view, and ignore examples that suggest the contrary?
Q6. Does my intuition tell me that I am right? Do I ‘just know’ that it’s true?
Step 3. Your answers.
If your answer to the first question was ‘nothing could change your mind’, there’s a good chance it’s an emotional belief. That doesn’t mean your belief is wrong, but at least you now know it’s an emotional belief.
As for the other questions: if you do immediately look for evidence to prove why the other person is wrong, or do become irritated, or do avoid the question, or only look for evidence to support your view, or if you just know that you’re right, it’s probably an emotional belief.
Step 4. Ask the rest of your listed beliefs the same questions.
Q. ‘Even if we are aware of our emotional beliefs, won’t we still feel stupid or ugly?’
Probably, but now it won’t direct your life (hopefully).
So, if you want that promotion, or want to ask someone out, but don’t feel worthy, you might tell yourself that although that feels true, it might not be true. It might only be an emotional belief: it might feel true, but have no substance.
If you felt it would be catastrophic to not be liked by others, but realised that it is an emotional belief, you could distance yourself from that belief and feel more comfortable being yourself.
Or, if you felt sure someone is uncool, but realised it might not actually be true, you can retain an open mind and be open to more opportunities.
Q. ‘It sounds too easy. We’re not going to get rid of disabling beliefs just by being aware of them.’
We’re not aiming to get rid of them; we’re aiming to undermine their influence upon us.
‘You are not asking us to drop the beliefs?’
No. You obviously want to keep them. There is a reason you want to keep them. Just be aware that they are probably false and that they may be disabling you. But keep them anyway, because they are dear to you. But don’t make wacky decisions based upon them.
Q. ‘These keys are easy. We don’t have to change our thinking, we just need be aware of what’s going on.’
That’s right. Trying to force ourselves to have thoughts and feelings, or get rid of the ones we have, won’t get us anywhere. But being aware of them can reduce their influence. Awareness is the first, crucial step.