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 they receive $100,000.
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.
‘As easy as shitting in bed and kicking it out with your feet.’
Yet, not one diviner has successfully discerned which drums held water and which didn’t – not above levels expected by chance. No one has claimed the $100,000.
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 dug 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’.
So, what exactly is an emotional belief? First, there are three kinds 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!’ (On an emotional level, we believe what we see is happening.)
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 of 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 that 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.
(A) Rational belief: ‘Like everyone, I make mistakes. Mistakes are part of the learning process.’
(B) Irrational belief: ‘I made a mistake. We are not supposed to make mistakes.’
(C) Emotional belief: ‘I keep making mistakes, so I’m stupid and worthless.’
Many of us believe (B) & (C). Some of us believe all three, despite the contradictions.
The zebra foal cannot feel comfortable having a misplaced emotional belief in a billboard. In the same way, we humans can’t feel comfortable with emotional beliefs disabling us. And, like the zebra foal, we can’t easily ditch our emotional beliefs, even if we are presented with plenty of evidence to suggest our beliefs aren’t true. We will ignore that evidence because our emotional beliefs feel so true. Beliefs are more potent than evidence.
Here are three ways we can hold disabling emotional beliefs:
(1) We have emotional beliefs about ourselves. 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) We can have emotional beliefs in how things are. Some people have emotional beliefs in wacky New-Age science, superstitions and magic, absurd conspiracy theories, or in an unwavering faith in their opinions and in the political party they vote for. They are unable to see the obvious flaws in their arguments and nothing will change their mind. That’s because their beliefs have become emotional beliefs.
‘If you believe that all salesmen are thieves or that all police are corrupt, it becomes impossible to see what is there. Instead you see a projection of your own ideals, beliefs and prejudices.’
David J. Lieberman in his book, ‘Never Be Lied To Again’.
(3) 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 emotional 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.
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?
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.
So, if we can’t get rid of our disabling beliefs, what can we do? See you in the next chapter.