Be aware of your emotional beliefs

Uncle: Water diviners believe that if they hold a switch a certain way . . .

Nephew: What’s a switch?

Uncle: A flexible shoot cut from a tree. They believe . . .

Nephew: What’s a water diviner?

Uncle: For goodness sake. It’s someone who uses a switch to find underground water. If there is water below where they stand their switch bends downwards.

Nephew: Uncle Alan found water on his farm that way. But he used a coat-hanger.

Uncle: A coat-hanger?

Nephew: When he wasn’t using it as a car arial.

Uncle: That’s enough about your uncle Alan. 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.

Nephew: And?

Uncle: No one has yet passed the test.

Nephew: Is the test fair?

Uncle: Judge for yourself: 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.

Nephew: Do they get the money?

Uncle: The diviners are then taken away out of sight and three of the drums are replaced with empty drums. Can you see what’s coming?

Nephew: I think so. Are the diviners 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. Is that correct?

Uncle: Well done.

Nephew: Well, they know their switch works with the drums, so it should be easy for them.

Uncle: You would think so, given their initial success. 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.

Nephew: Would the sceptics’ negativity interfere with the diviners’ detecting powers?

Uncle: Their switches worked well when they knew all six drums held water, and the sceptics were just as sceptical then.

Nephew: Fair point.

Uncle: Here’s the interesting bit: despite their failure, not one diviner could be persuaded that they could not divine water! They continued to hold their beliefs.

Nephew: Why?

Uncle: Because they had an emotionalbelief in their abilities. If you have an emotional belief in something, almost nothing will change your mind. There are even names for it: Belief Perseverance,  and Conceptual Conservatism. That’s when you maintain a belief even though plenty of information firmly contradicts it. Such beliefs may even be strengthenedwhen they are debunked. That’s a phenomenon known as ‘the backfire effect’.

Nephew: Emotional beliefs? Do you mean irrational beliefs?

Uncle: I mean emotionalbeliefs. Consider: 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.

Nephew. I’ve heard of that. It’s called ‘imprinting’. The foal learns its mother’s smell, too.

Uncle: 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 emotionalattachment to the billboard. It would feelthat the billboard was its mother.

Nephew: You’re a sicko.

Uncle: Think of a horror film. Rationally you know the person being chased is an actor, and the monster, special effects, yet silently you scream ‘Run!’ because you emotionally believe the person is in danger.

Nephew: That’s an irrational belief.

Uncle: No, an irrational belief would be to believe it is real footage of people being killed by a monster. Your fear for the actor is an emotionalbelief, because you believe it not with your intellect, but with your emotions. Do you believe in Santa Claus?

Nephew: Hardly.

Uncle: Yet, you have an emotional belief in him, because you were raised with the belief that he actually existed. Yes, that belief vanished, but the emotionalbelief in him remains. That is why retailers use Santa in their advertisements. Santa sells. And that’s okay, because Santa is a good character to have around. And water divining is unimportant; just a harmless self-delusion.

Nephew: Hey, hey, my uncle Alan was good at it! He found water.

Uncle: That’s not surprising. Three quarters of Australia has underground water. If you dig, there is a good chance you will find it.

Nephew: Oh.

Uncle: Besides, a water diviner would intuitively look in the more likely areas.

Nephew: Unless you’re the idiot in that nursery rhyme.

Uncle: What nursery rhyme?

Nephew: Jack and Jill went up the hill to fetch a pale of water.

Uncle: What about it?

Nephew: Who would dig a well on top of a hill? You’d have to be an idiot.

Uncle: For goodness sake. Yes, alright. There are . . .

Nephew: Though I have to admit, whoever had that dumb idea got it right. There was water in that well. That’s why Jack and Jill headed up there.

Uncle: Yes, but . . .

Nephew: Maybe the person who dug that well was a water diviner.

Uncle: Will you shut up about water divining?!

Nephew: You brought it up! You said . . .

Uncle: Yes, I know what I said, and I deeply regret it. I’m just trying to say that there are lots of different ways to have emotional beliefs, and most are harmless. The trouble occurs when we have disablingemotional beliefs.

Nephew: Like what?

Uncle: Like when we have strong but unrealistic beliefs in how things should be. That can lead to disappointment and anxiety. And, some people grow up feeling 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.

Nephew: Why would that be limiting?

Uncle: 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.

Nephew: So how do we get rid of disabling emotional beliefs?

Uncle: 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.

Nephew: But why is that belief comfortable? If someone thinks they’re dumb or ugly, why don’t they jump at the chance to have their mind changed?

Uncle: When we have a thought it connects neurons in our brain, along which a signal is transmitted. Have that thought often enough and you will create a well-worn, comfortable pathway. Soon it becomes so easy to use that pathway that 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.

Nephew: That’s why I reckon no child should be imprinted with a prejudice or religious belief. Each of us should have the freedom to form our own philosophies.

Uncle: You certainly are aware of imprinted beliefs!

Nephew: I just don’t call them emotional beliefs.

Uncle: We can even have two pathways supporting contrary beliefs. That’s called ‘cognitive dissonance’. 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.

Nephew: How badly can we be disabled by an emotional belief?

Uncle: How would a child feel if he were brought up to believe that homosexuality is evil and unnatural, then discovered he was gay? How would an overweight child feel being brought up in a world in which fat is considered bad? How would a child struggling academically feel living in a world that mocks stupidity? Yes, some emotional beliefs can be pretty disabling.

Nephew: Fair enough.

Uncle: We can even acquire a disabling belief by placing our complete trust in someone.

Nephew: Like . . .?

Uncle: 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.

Nephew: Where is the spaceship now?

Uncle: (Sigh)

Nephew: If we can’t get rid of our disabling emotional beliefs, what do we do?

Uncle: We can become aware of them.

Nephew: Is that all? We won’t get rid of disabling beliefs just by being aware of them.

Uncle: We’re not aiming to get rid of them; we’re aiming to undermine their influence upon us. Awareness has a lot going for it! 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.

Nephew: For example?

Uncle: 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. And feel more confident about themselves.

Nephew: Okay.

Uncle: Or, let’s say you like someone but think you’re not worthy of their company.

Nephew: Happens all the time.

Uncle: Although that belief feels right and true to you, 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, you’re not worthy!’ you would approach the person anyway.

Nephew: I see.

Uncle: The point is: 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.

Nephew: Let’s say I like someone, but my emotional belief says I am not worthy of asking her out. You’re suggesting I should ignore that warning and ask her out anyway. But there is a very good chance the belief was right, and I’ll be rejected.

Uncle: True. But it was the right decision to ask her out.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. And at the very least, by asking, we are not letting our emotional beliefs direct our life.

Nephew: Even if they’re often right?

Uncle: Yes, even if they are often right. By being aware of them and choosing to ignore them, we begin to trust ourselves and the direction we are taking in life. That’s gold.

Nephew: So, I should ask out a super model? Is that what you’re saying?

Uncle: Do you know her?

Nephew: No.

Uncle: Then no. I’m not suggesting you abandon commonsense, for goodness sake.

Nephew: Oh.

Uncle: But if you knew her, and liked her for the person she is, then yes.

Nephew: Oh.

Uncle: I’m just saying, the next time you feel hopeless or stupid, or poor, or defective, or better than someone else, remind yourself that it’s just an emotional belief, even though it feels right. Then make the right decision, even if it feels wrong.

Nephew: Speaking of models, you could be a male model.

Uncle: What?

Nephew: It says in my dictionary: ‘model: small imitation of the real thing’.

Uncle: Clear off!

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.

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