Water diviners believe that if they hold a switch a certain way (a switch is a flexible shoot cut from a tree) they believe they can find underground water. If there is water below where they stand, their switch supposedly bends downwards.
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 $100,000. If they pass the test in the U.S.A. they get a million dollars and free publicity (if they want it).
No one has yet passed the test.
The water diviners are taken to a paddock in which six holes have been dug. Six full drums of water are rolled into the holes and each is covered with a thick sheet of plywood. The water diviners are then asked to walk on the sheets of wood and use their switch to see if it’s working. The diviners find that yes, their switches do indeed work. Their switches bend downwards each time they stand above a drum of water.
The diviners are then taken away while three of the drums are replaced with empty drums. Can you see what’s coming?
Yes, the diviners are brought back to the site and told that to get the prize, all they have to do is let their switches indicate which three of the six drums still hold water.
In theory, it should be easy for them because they have already established that their switches are working. Yet, not one diviner has successfully discerned which drums held water and which didn’t – not above levels expected by chance.
One diviner accused the Skeptic officials of cheating, but was silenced when three full drums and three empty drums were revealed.
Other diviners have pointed out that the sceptics’ negativity interfered with their detecting powers. It was pointed out to them that their switches worked well when they knew all six drums held water, and the sceptics had been just as sceptical then.
Other diviners profess that they have successfully found water, so their skills must be real. They ignore the fact that it’s easy to find water because three quarters of Australia has underground water. And, a water diviner would intuitively look in the more likely areas.
“Jack and Jill went up the hill to fetch a pale of water.”
The question is: who would dig a well on a hill?
Here’s the interesting bit: despite their failure to find the drums under conditions they thought to be fair, not one diviner could be persuaded that they could not divine water! They continued to hold their beliefs.
Why? Because they had an emotional belief in their abilities. If we have an emotional belief in something, almost nothing will change our mind. There are names for it: ‘Belief Perseverance’, and ‘Conceptual Conservatism’. That’s when we maintain a belief even though plenty of information firmly contradicts it.
Such beliefs may even be strengthened when they are debunked. That’s a phenomenon known as ‘the backfire effect’.
Three types of beliefs: (1) rational beliefs (2) irrational beliefs (3) emotional beliefs
While watching the horror film, ‘Alien’, we can hold two beliefs interchangeably.
(1) Rational belief: the film is fiction, with actors and special effects.
(2) Irrational belief: the film is a documentary made to warn us about space exploration.
(3) Emotional belief: ‘Don’t go in there, Ripley! It’s dangerous!’
When a zebra foal is born, its mother stands in front of it for the first two days of its life. The foal instinctively learns the pattern of its mother’s stripes so that if mother and foal are separated in a stampede, the foal can later find its mother. The foal also learns its mother’s smell. It’s called ‘imprinting’.
If in a cruel experiment you were to place a billboard advertisement for a can of cola in front the foal for the first two days of its life, that foal would develop a strong emotional attachment to the billboard. It would feel that the billboard was its mother; it would have an emotional belief the sign is its mother.
Do you believe in Santa Claus? If you were raised to believe in him you might have an emotional belief in the existence of Santa, which is why retailers use Santa in their advertisements. That’s harmless, because Santa is a good character to have around. And, water divining is just a harmless self-delusion. And, having an emotional belief that Ripley is in danger enhances our enjoyment of the film. There are many ways to have an emotional belief, and most are harmless. The trouble occurs when we have disabling emotional beliefs.
(1) Emotional beliefs in how things are. Some people grow up feeling they are ugly, dumb or worthless, when it’s obvious to the rest of us that they’re not. Or, someone might grow up believing they are wonderful, which can be just as limiting. (If someone believes they are wonderful they might not be able to see their flaws and limitations, so they can’t grow. And, when people reject them they can’t understand why, and might become frustrated, bewildered, even isolated.)
(2) Emotional beliefs in how things should be. We look at that in the next chapter.
Q. ‘How badly can we be disabled by an emotional belief?’
How would a child feel if they were brought up to believe homosexuality is evil and unnatural, then discovered they were gay? How would an overweight child feel being brought up in a world that says being fat is unattractive? How would a child struggling academically feel living in a world that mocks stupidity?
In 1997, thirty-nine people killed themselves because they believed their souls would fly up to a spaceship hiding behind a comet. Their emotional belief in their cult leader, Marshal Applewhite, was so strong they didn’t question their belief in him; instead, they succumbed to it. Had each person known their belief was just an emotional one they may have made a sharper decision.
Yes, some emotional beliefs can be pretty disabling.
Q. ‘Why do we hold emotional beliefs? If someone thinks they’re dumb or ugly, why don’t they jump at the chance to have their mind changed?’
Because their beliefs feel comfortable. When we have a thought it connects neurons in our brain, along which a signal is transmitted. Have that thought often enough, or have it imprinted, then we will create a well-worn, comfortable pathway. Soon it becomes so easy to use that pathway it’s hard to form a new one. That’s when a belief seems real and true, even if to the rest of us it’s obviously hogwash.
Q. ‘Could having an emotional belief lead to cognitive dissonance?’
cognitive dissonance = having beliefs that contradict each other. Mutually exclusive beliefs.
Yes. Jill believes stealing is wrong, but also believes it’s okay for her to steal. Both views have strong pathways, so both views seem valid to her, though you and I might see her as a hypocrite.
Q. How do we get rid of disabling emotional beliefs?
We don’t. Remember the water diviners and ‘Belief Perseverance’? Almost nothing will change a believer’s mind. We hold our disabling emotional beliefs close to our chest, and prop them up with a scaffolding of related beliefs, hoping that if we insulate ourselves from the truth we will protect ourselves from it. When someone proves our emotional belief wrong, for a second or two we feel disoriented, and then we jump straight back into that comfortable belief.
That’s why I believe that no child should be imprinted with a prejudice or religious belief. Let’s give them the freedom to form their own philosophies.
Q. ‘If we can’t get rid of our disabling emotional beliefs, what can we do about them?’
We can aim to undermine their influence upon us by becoming aware of them.
If that zebra foal had realised its attachment to the cola sign was just an emotional belief imprinted upon it, it might have made the more rational decision to join its real mum, despite misgivings. In the same way, we can make sharper decisions when we accept that our disabling beliefs might be false, even though they feel so true.
If someone felt it would be catastrophic to be disliked by others, but realised that may only be an emotional belief, then that person might find it easier to behave in a less needy and less sycophantic way. They might end up feeling more confident about themselves.
Or, let’s say you like someone but think you’re not worthy of their company. Or you want to apply for a job but believe you’re not up to it. Although the belief feels right and true, you might consider the possibility that it’s just an emotional belief that could be wrong. So, despite the voice in your head saying ‘Forget it, I’m not worthy!’ you would approach the person, or apply for the job, anyway.
‘There is a good chance the belief was right, and I’ll be rejected.’
True. But it was the right decision to try. If we have an emotional belief hammering in our heads, our decision making faculties will be wonky. That means we won’t know the truth of the matter until we ask. At the very least, just by asking, we are not letting our emotional beliefs direct our life.
In life 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.
‘Should ask out a super model? Is that what you’re saying?’
Do you know her?
I’m not suggesting you abandon commonsense! But if you know her, and like her for the person she is, then yes.
In short, the next time you feel hopeless or stupid, or poor, or defective, or better than someone else, remind yourself that it’s an emotional belief and it might be wrong, even though it feels right. Then make the right decision, even if it feels wrong.
Exercise 1. Discover your emotional beliefs.
Step 1. Find a strong belief you have about yourself or about how things should be. For example:
– I’m not worthy
– Cruelty to animals is wrong/is necessary
– There is/is not human induced climate change
– there really is/isn’t a conspiracy.
Step 2. Answer the following questions.
Q1. What would change your mind? What evidence would you require?
Q2. If someone challenges that belief, do you try to prove the person wrong?
Q3. Do you become more irritated the more your belief is challenged?
Q4. When someone questions your point of view do you tend to go off on a tangent? Do you avoid the question? Answer a different question?
Q5. Do you search for information to support your view, and ignore information that contradicts it?
Q6. Does your intuition tell you that you are right? Do you ‘just know’ that it’s true?
Step 3. 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.
How did you go in the other questions? If you do immediately look for evidence to prove why the other person is wrong, or if you do become irritated, or avoid the question, or only look for evidence to support your view, or if you ‘just know that you’re right, then again, it’s probably an emotional belief.
Step 4. If it is an emotional belief, is it undermining you? Is it making you look like a goose? Is it preventing you from maturing? Is it wasting your time and money? Does your belief dishearten you? Would you be better off without this belief?
If so, try the next exercise.
Exercise 2. Ways to weaken your emotional beliefs.
Emotional beliefs are almost impossible to eradicate, but we can diminish their influence upon us.
1. Keep being aware of them. Label them. ‘Ah. That’s my familiar emotional belief kicking in.’
2. Make a list of all the ways that belief is undermining you.
For example, Sam has vowed to never marry because he believes women only want a man for his money. Sam might write:
‘By believing that women are only interested in my money,
1. I might not realise when a woman I like thinks I’m special.
2. I will continue to miss out on the pleasure of trusting someone.
3. I will continue to miss out on the pleasure of being trusted.
4. I will look like a goose, because it’s obvious many women are not interested in a guy’s money.
5. I will miss out on the pleasure of feeling close and intimate with someone.
6. I will miss out on the pleasure of knowing that someone is enjoying my company.
7. I will continue to have a tunnel-visioned, myopic, superficial understanding of love.
8. I will miss out on the possibility of making a close friend.
9. I will continue to foster bitterness and resentment within me.
10. I will doom myself to remain lonely.’
3. Bid the disabling belief, ‘Goodbye’. In his book The Happiness Trap, Dr Russ Harris gives a few ideas on what do do when an emotional belief pops up and tries to interfere. He suggests we tell ourselves: ‘Here’s that thought about me being bad. Hello thought. Goodbye.’
‘Here comes the “I’m the victim” story. Hello story. Goodbye.’
‘Hi thought, see you later’ and let that thought drift away.
After telling the thought ‘Goodbye’ we can then make the right decision, even though it might feel like the wrong decision. It’s the right decision even if the belief turned out to be true.
Question: When I say ‘Goodbye’ to my thoughts they keep coming back.
They will. Keep saying goodbye. Meanwhile, make the right decision, despite how wrong it feels.
4. Challenge the thoughts behind our emotional belief. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) involves disputing core beliefs in a particular way. Apparently it often works. My concern is that if we don’t apply that strategy properly, and simply try to prove to ourselves that we are not ugly, or not stupid, a voice inside us might insist that we are. As Nassim Nicholas Taleb says, ‘Good, enlightened advice and eloquent sermons do not register for more than a few moments when they go against our wiring.’
If you do try CBT, do it with a psychologist.
5. Choose to not feed them.If there is a film, conversation, magazine article, or anything else that might reinforce your emotional belief, avoid it. Be the gatekeeper of what you feed your mind.