Gathering Evidence for Your Beliefs
Got a newsflash for you, Cupcakes:
Everything – and I do mean EVERYTHING – that you believe about the world around you is based on evidence. From your thoughts about the meaning of life and the purpose of your existence, all the way down to your conviction that you look better as a blonde than as a brunette, every principle, opinion, or thought about which you might take a stand is based on evidence.
Take the widely-held belief that life is better when you are kind to others. You may or may not believe this. If you DO, your reasons likely include the following:
- When you are kind to others, you feel good. This good feeling spills over into all other aspects of your day, increasing your optimism and helping you cope with unfavorable circumstances.
- When others are kind to YOU, you feel good. The gratitude and bonding you experience when someone smiles at you or helps you convinces you that you want to give this gift to others.
- You have read or been told that kindness is a virtue. Since you already had faith in the people or books that told you this, you believe it.
All of the reasons above are pieces of EVIDENCE that your brain uses to support your belief that kindness is GOOD. There are probably HUNDREDS of specific example in your brain that strengthen this belief; therefore, you believe it.
But someone else may not.
Consider a hard-nosed, financially successful business executive who has gained his power and prestige by stepping on the hopes and dreams of other people on his road to “the top.” To him, kindness is weakness. To him, the best life possible is the one created by instilling fear, stealing opportunities, and cutting others off at the knees. To him, money and power far outweigh love and connection. And you better believe that he has evidence to back it up.
So who has it right? Is it better to be kind, or better to be ruthless?
Answer: It really doesn’t matter.
Now, before you throw a giant fit and vow to never visit my website again, remember that I actually DO believe in absolutes. I personally believe that LOVE IS ALWAYS THE BEST WAY. But when it comes down to what an individual BELIEVES, especially if that individual is an adult, the truth of the matter…well…DOESN’T matter. And I’m about to tell you why.
How Confirmation Bias Works…and why it screws us over.
Have you ever had an assignment that required you to research and defend a position (whether or not abortion should be legal, whether to allow men into women’s restrooms, etc)? What happened when, while doing said research, you came across information that directly opposed the stand you were trying to make? Did you include it in your paper?
Heck no, you didn’t! At best, you pulled out a few objections for the express purpose of proving them wrong. More than likely, you pitched the entire source that went against your viewpoint.
THIS IS HOW YOUR BRAIN WORKS WHEN YOU HAVE DECIDED SOMETHING IS TRUE.
Once you’ve gathered up enough evidence for your brain to sense a pattern, it starts looking for evidence that fits that pattern. Evidence to the contrary gets cast aside. This is why, if you are convinced, say… that no one thinks you are pretty, you will immediately determine that a stranger who glanced at you and then away couldn’t stand to look at you, rather than assuming that this person was actually ATTRACTED to you but too shy to make eye contact for long. The reality of the situation is that you cannot POSSIBLY know what that person was thinking, even if you were to ask them. But since you have already established a belief, you will seek evidence for that belief in your circumstance. The tendency to look for information that supports beliefs we already hold is called CONFIRMATION BIAS, and it happens on a subconscious level ALL DANG DAY.
The Bad News
Because of Confirmation Bias, we spend most of our lives running around CEMENTING beliefs that: 1) may actually be false, and 2) on top of being false, may be HOLDING US BACK.
Here’s a common example: So many of my clients, in the wake of something they have deemed a “failure” (though this loaded word is often applied to something as mildly problematic as forgetting a dentist appointment) will say things like, “I suck at everything,” or “I’m never going to get better at this stuff.” When you think these thoughts, you feel horrible and self-conscious – much MORE likely to retreat into your home to lick your wounds than to get curious about what caused your mistake, brush the dirt off your butt, and get out there to try again.
But think about it – how crazy are those statements? You suck at EVERYTHING? And you are somehow able to see into the future and know that you will NEVER get better? There is almost ALWAYS an incredible amount of evidence to the contrary of such demeaning thoughts, but to the person who already believes these statements, it is difficult (or impossible) to see.
The Good News
Now that you know about Confirmation Bias and your own brain’s tendency to seek evidence for thoughts it has already produced many times, you can start to do something that will open WIDE the doors of self-discovery: QUESTION YOUR THOUGHTS.
Say you have the ever-so-depressing thought, “Nobody likes me.” I don’t know what prompted it. Maybe no one wrote on your Facebook wall for your birthday. Maybe you gained three pounds and didn’t get invited to the unofficial company trip to Vegas. Whatever the reason, the thought that no one likes you pops up, and your brain begins to suffocate you with evidence to support it. Your ex-best friend doesn’t like you, your boss doesn’t like you, your mother-in-law doesn’t like you, that dude at the coffee-shop who looked at you funny doesn’t like you….so it must be true that nobody likes you. But watch what happens when you apply a few questions to the thought “Nobody likes me.”
Q: Is it TRUE that nobody likes you? Can you find any evidence to the contrary?(If you can think of even ONE person who DOES like you, or ONE person that has not met you and therefore has not decided whether to like you or not, then you cannot honestly say this is true.)
Q: If it is not ENTIRELY TRUE, or NOT TRUE AT ALL…what purpose does holding on to this belief serve? (Often, beliefs like this result from our brain trying to protect us from the pain of rejection. Ironically, this belief generally causes more pain than the rejection would have caused.)
Q: If you were to go around looking for evidence that people DID like you, how would that change your behavior and progress toward the life you want?
See what happens to the belief when you start to question it? Suddenly, the evidence you haven’t been paying attention to starts to pop up, allowing you to start building a case for a different thought – a thought that will inspire confidence and lift your spirit.
Keep in mind, Cupcakes, that if you are new to the concepts I’m talking about here, it’s going to be a lot to take in. For now, your big takeaway is this:
Any time you have a thought that makes you feel bad or keeps you from taking action toward a goal, stop long enough to ask yourself if there is any evidence to support the OPPOSITE thought. If there is – explore it, look for it, and see how it changes your action.