What do you believe in? What are your main values in life? You might take a few minutes to answer those questions. However, if I asked you to think about where your values and beliefs came from, would you find that more difficult?
How do we acquire our values and beliefs and why are they so hard to change once established?
We establish our values and beliefs in childhood
As with most things in psychology, to understand how we learn to form certain beliefs we have to go back to our childhood. There are only two things that we are born believing in and they are fear of falling and loud noises. The rest of it is all learned. We learn by observing, listening and participating in our environment.
Whilst we do this, we also form beliefs along the way. In actual fact, we form a lot of our earliest and most basic beliefs without consciously knowing.
Our brains look for patterns
Our brains look for patterns in the environment. Why? To streamline information so that we can quickly assimilate a situation and assess what we need to do.
I’ll give you an example I always use. If you hear flapping wings in the sky, your brain already knows this sound is likely to come from a bird, not a fish or mammal or manmade contraption. The brain has to function like this – otherwise, it would expend too much energy and time reassessing everything that flapped above our heads.
When patterns emerge, we form values and beliefs
Now, the way our brains function is essential to the way our beliefs form. Because, as we see patterns emerge, we start to believe and this belief becomes a concrete value and truth.
To put this into context, if anyone has seen The Matrix, I remember the first time I saw the character Trinity suspended in mid-air. This goes against everything we know to be true about gravity, which made the scene all the more extraordinary.
Paul Zak is a neuroscientist at Claremont Graduate University. He explains that children learn about things like gravity from around 3 months old.
“They believe that if you drop a ball, it will hit the ground. So, if you let go and the ball hovers in the air, those infants will look at it like, ‘What the hell?’ The hovering ball violates this tenet they’ve already come to believe.” Zak
So we learn our beliefs from observation, and the way our brains function, but what else?
We form our beliefs first, then look for patterns to fit them
Michael Shermer is a psychology professor, the founder of Skeptic magazine and a columnist for Scientific American. Shermer says that we can form our beliefs first then look for patterns to fit them.
As well as looking for patterns in life, our brains are also seeking meaning to these patterns. When we have already formed our beliefs, the brain now needs to rationalise them and give them meaning. It needs an explanation to the patterns and it will search out evidence to support it.
Not only that, but it will vigorously ignore conflicting information.
“Our brains take the facts and fit them to reinforce our beliefs.” Zak
Our families shape our values and beliefs
Our earliest ancestors used stories to inform, scare, educate and pass on vital information to their families. Likewise, today, we learn through stories about our own personal history, our communities and our countries.
All this sets the foundation for how we grow and see the world we live in. As a result, we form our own theories and beliefs and create our own value systems. But there’s more to it than just remembering tales from family members.
Human beings are herd animals. We like to belong to a group. No one likes being the outsider or the lone voice. Therefore, these group identities inveigle their way into our minds and become our beliefs.
Jonas Kaplan is a professor of psychology at USC’s Brain and Creativity Institute.
“The systems in the brain that light up when we access our beliefs are the same systems that help us understand stories,” Kaplan says. “We see a lot of the same brain systems involved when people think about who they are and about the beliefs that are most important to them.”
So what happens when our values and beliefs are challenged?
Why we find it so hard to change our beliefs
Emotions are linked to our beliefs. Therefore, changing our beliefs and values is virtually impossible. Evolutionary psychology can help us understand why emotions play a big part in beliefs and values.
Hundreds of thousands of years ago, if our ancestors heard rustling in the grasses it would either be a threat of a wild animal or the wind. Those that associated all noises with an animal would survive anyway. But those who thought it was the wind when it was a predator would die.
However, this type of thinking makes sense in cavemen times, not the modern world.
“Most of the time, it’s a good thing. It’s an old, wise, biological system that’s there to help us, but it’s not always relevant to modern life.” Kaplan
Our beliefs are linked to our emotions. In fact, the brain stores them in a different place so that we can access this information quickly whenever it is needed. More to the point, the brain puts in safeguards to protect these beliefs.
These beliefs are tied to highly impactful emotional events. The most basic part of our brain – the amygdala, springs into action when these memories are activated. This is our reptilian brain that we don’t even control.
“The strongest beliefs are tied to things like 9/11 or the birth of a child; highly emotional events create beliefs that are almost impossible to change.” Zak
Kaplan calls these ‘sacred values’, values and beliefs that are permanent in our minds. The problem is that once an established belief takes hold if it is false, it can spread and cause harm to a wider audience. So what can people do?
We all need to believe and have values. Afterall, that’s what makes us human. Kaplan advises we spend time outside our inner circles, we don’t believe everything we read and are open-minded about other people’s views. Sounds good to me.
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