Host: Paul Kristoffer

Topics discussed:

  • What are beliefs, and how are they formed?
  • Why do we humans have beliefs?
  • How can we determine if our beliefs are true or false?
  • How can we discuss important topics as a community without anger, violence or lawlessness?

Full Transcript:

There is a struggle in the world today. A conflict older than history. It’s a competition of ideas, and their proponents. Its  about who is right, and who is wrong and how major decisions are being made. But is it, really, and how can we change this dynamic?

The stakes are high because the outcomes are of great consequence for families, careers, industry, society and government. The vast majority of us are quietly going about our daily lives, while this war is being waged across all forms of media, the educational system, [from pre-K through high school and college], religious & social cause organizations, government and corporate offices.

Whether we acknowledge it, or not, we are all involved.

Episode 1: Belief

This episode is inspired by a man I met last summer from Idaho. He was visiting family in Vermont and he told a story about his neighbor, who believed in a certain religion and commented about his neighbor that, “I don’t care what you believe, as long as you believe something.” I have thought about this since, and did some of my own research to determine whether this fellow was saying something I could agree with, or not.

As we have seen recently in American culture, the conflict between different beliefs can cause us to argue, shout, damage property, storm buildings and break laws.

But why are discussions about government, taxes, spending, what rights individuals should or should not have, that are of great importance to everyone, so emotionally charged; marked by shouting, hatred and violence. Surely there is a better way to move towards meaningful progress in society where all voices can be heard, and ideas shared with respect.

If we want to get to this future, it is crucial to talk about beliefs, what they are, why we are so tied to them, how they are formed and how to change them. We all have beliefs, but how much time have any of us spent understanding how those beliefs were formed, and how valid are the underlying assumptions? Are we taking someone else’s word for it, like a favorite news anchor, tv personality, organization or politician? Ans why do we give an outsized degree of power to our beliefs and let them dominate our behavior, attitudes and mood?

How much pointless human suffering is taking place today because of our beliefs, or the beliefs of others? The purpose of this podcast is to make human society better, by questioning dangerous beliefs and reducing suffering. 

Let’s start with the basics. What is a belief?

Most people will define a belief as that which we have accepted as true, genuine or real.

Simple enough, but how to we come to believe? And why do we humans believe at all? Where did this capability come from? And how does belief impact our lives and well being?

Well, fortunately, beliefs have been a study of psychologists for a long time. There is strong evidence, based upon research, that beliefs are vitally important to our survival, for the following two reasons:

1. Faster Decision making

2. Energy savings

Research has shown that beliefs are shortcuts created in our brains to save time and energy, especially for routine tasks. This enables us to react faster to opportunities and threats.

Our brains do this by recognizing patterns and using existing structures to make decisions and react to circumstances. Our brains are continually on the lookout for patterns and associations. We are making cause-and effect relationships all the time, whether one exists, or not.

This has been the cause of much human suffering. For example, over 200 people were accused of Witchcraft in Salem, Massachusetts in 1692. By the end, 30 people were found guilty, 5 died in jail and one man was pressed to death, which apparently involves the barbaric practice of being placed under a huge weight until dead. The Pilgrims had a long list of death penalty crimes, including the crime of following other religions. Today, most people don’t believe that  withcraft  is real, and that its a mis-placed phobia or paranoia that sprang from the dark minds of people living in harsh conditions. We should not judge them too harshly, however, as any of us can fall prey to the exact same traps in the labyrinth of the human mind, unless we stay disciplined and ever vigilant against them.

So, why does the brain need shortcuts and belief systems at all? Well, we are limited by the amount of time and information we have available to us. As a result, we are forced to rely on biases and beliefs to make decisions. Further, these shortcuts reduce the amount of mental effort required. Do not assume, however, that the choices made are right. In fact, more frequently than not, we are making incorrect decisions faster – saving energy along the way! In business, it is not whether a decision is ultimately right or wrong that matters. Speed, and the ability to make corrections quickly, are favored over lengthy indecision.

In 2014 Geoff P Lovell, Ross Newell and John K Parker in, “Research in Psychology and Behavioral Sciences” magazine, decided to determine whether English Premier league soccer referees had a bias for home teams over visiting ones. The study was to confirm what fans and media had always suspected, that referees did in fact make calls in favor of the home team, especially in contentious or close calls. Soccer referees train to make fair and unbiased decisions all the tim, but their unconscious biases, over-ride what they are perceiving through their eyes (which is actually the brain doing the ‘seeing’) to make the wrong call. If the people whose job it is to remove bias from their decisions can’t do it, then what hope does the average citizen have? Without science, data and facts? None.

If they are often so hopelessly wrong, why are the brain’s shortcuts, important from a biological perspective? If we are incorrect more often than right, how does this help us in the wild?

The sound of a twig snapping in the forest at night could well be a dangerous predator. With little time before an attack, “Run!” would be our brains immediate response, saving our lives.  The faster the action is taken, the more likely an individual is to survive. If it turns out that the sound was made by a fallen branch, or a harmless small mammal, it hardly matters, However, most of us do not face ‘life or death’ situations today, unless we are crossing a busy street in a noisy city, meaning that many processes of the brain are remnants from our development as a species, not necessarily 100% helpful in the modern world.

The advantages of these shortcuts is that they take less brain processing power and time. It’s much easier to skip all of the thinking and take the right action, or make a decision. But these built in pathways do not always work, which is why we make mistakes all the time. Thinking is hard!

So, how are beliefs formed, and what are they actually? At the simplest level, our brains make associations that may, or may not, exist based upon our lived experience, or perceptions. For example, if “b” follows “a”, then our brian makes a connection that “a” causes “b”. Knowing that game animals are attracted to acorns in the fall increases a hunter’s chance at a meal by staking out the area beneath a mature oak tree that is dropping its fruit. This then forms a belief in the hunters mind that hunting near oak trees in the fall will increase the chances of finding game. An essential survival trait. These associations are neural connections, or circuits, that are created in the brian.

When these circuits are “hard coded”, the neural pathways are reflexive and unconscious – like the famous Pavlov’s dogs. The ring of a dinner bell brought about a salivary response through learned conditioning. The dog does not need to think – the response occurs reflexively. This happens to us humans all the time – and some are very dangerous and harmful.

However, this is not the entire story from a biological perspective. Making faster decisions is only one aspect of survival. In order to survive, an individual must not die of starvation or dehydration. Therefore, saving energy and operating efficiently are also competitive advantages.

The brain is the part of our bodies that powers these capabilities. It is a complex and awesome organ, however, it does not come cheaply. It is our body’s most energy intensive organ. According to Simon Laughlin, professor of zoology at Cambridge University, a typical adult brain consumes 20% of the body’s energy at rest, but only makes up 2% of the body’s mass and contains one hundred billion nerve cells, called neurons,

What is driving the need for all of this energy? Well the bulk of the energy is consumed at the synapses, the gaps between cells, to pump ions exchanging potassium and sodium to create electrical charge. This pumping action is key to the brian’s activity, but it’s extremely energy intensive.

Certain activities, such as hearing, require faster, real time processing, and are more energy intensive. Others, such as smell, are slower requiring less energy.

The body’s main source of energy is glucose but the brain has no ability to synthesize or store it. The brian must be continuously supplied with fresh nutrients through the blood. This is why low levels of glucose in the blood can lead to impaired brian function, or  even brain death over a few hours time.

Beliefs, then, are an adaptation to help the brain conserve energy by making faster, automatic decisions that require less processing power.  Less neurons need to be involved, less synapses and less ions to be pumped equate to energy savings. However, what a mess these beliefs have caused us in society today, and throughout history.

The brain is continually searching for and creating causal relationships where none may exist. We now understand these connections to be hard coded circuits, or connections, between neural pathways that can be quite subconscious. Often, however, our brains can’t tell the difference and we are fooled into thinking “a” causes “b” when the assumption is not true. Pavlov’s dinner bell did not cause the dog’s food to appear, but to the dogs brains, it certainly did. There are many examples of incorrect, or false, beliefs starting with early man’s explanation of natural phenomenon as the actions of gods, or medieval medicine being thought of based upon flowing “humors” in the body, or the theory of spontaneous generation of life. The only way, though, to be sure of a causal relationship is through observation and statistical analysis. This eliminates the powerful biases of our brains and enables data based decision making, vs. emotional or biased decisions.

As an example, as ice cream sales increase, so do murder rates. However, not many people believe that ice cream causes murder, although this can’t be ruled out entirely. It’s most likely a correlation, not a causal relationship.

Another example are superstitions. Let’s say a friend gives you a rabbit’s foot for good luck, and nothing bad happens to you that day, you are likely to associate the rabbit’s foot with good luck (although undoubtedly, bad luck for the rabbit).

We are pre-wired by our brains to develop beliefs, to save time and energy. We get beliefs from our parents, teachers, cultures and society. Further, we will develop our own beliefs through lived experience.

This problem is bad enough when individuals are making poor decisions based upon false beliefs, but is magnified when considering groups.. We seen how people with common beliefs form groups, or the reverse, people in groups start to organize themselves through beliefs that are then shared to new individuals, such as cults or secret societies. These groups can exert more power and influence when acting together, then as individuals. There are clear advantages, but how exactly do shared beliefs strengthen the group and how would this help from an evolutionary perspective?

Well, they  increase the competitiveness of the group and, therefore, the survivability of individuals. Robert Boyd, professor of Human Behavior and Social Change at Arizona State University argues in his book, “A Different Kind of Animal”, that norms amongst a group provide a scaffold for sharing decisions, limiting the scope of internal and external conflict, making the group more competitive.

Cultural norms and taboos are generally created and spread by individuals deemed to have knowledge by the group, rather than by individuals trying to figure out how stuff works. How many of us have seen this in the workplace, where people at the top make major decisions based upon their own beliefs, not necessarily the best thought out solution. This is how tribes have ended up with behaviors such as:  dietary taboos, food distribution rules, and unique codes of behavior governing courtship, marriage and war.

These socially accepted rules and taboos were not developed through observations and testing, but through imitation. Since we know that humans create a lot of mistaken connections or assumptions, a lot of maladaptive behaviors result. Maladaptive behaviors are those that stop us from adapting to new or difficult circumstances. Its ironic that a trait we’ve inherited to make us more competitive, can result in behaviors that do the opposite and make us less adaptive to new circumstances. This is how major civilizations in the past collapsed, circumstances changed, but their ideology and practices did not.

OK, so why do humans get it wrong, and follow incorrect beliefs even to destruction?

Unfortunately, it is perfectly natural. Our brains and central nervous system are the result of millions of years of evolution, and what improved the survival of an individual, may not apply well to civilizations over the long term, or modern society at all. The brain evolved along with every other organ, and cell, in the body. The biological traits which are archaic remnants of the past create unnecessary stress and anxiety today.

Just take a look at one of the most fundamental questions that has been answered by cultures across the world and time is the story of creation. All civilizations that we can think of  have developed their own stories. Typically,  the world, stars and planets were created by a deity, deities or character that already exists out of nothing, or a god or gods created the world out of themselves or something that was already created.

These stories are universally not in alignment with measurements and observations taken from Earth, but nevertheless those people believed and billions of people still believe in literal stories of creation, despite plenty of evidence to the contrary. Early humans, lacking the ability to record observations, track data and review, are unable to develop a reliable theory of creation. Instead, early astronomers were persecuted because of their observations which ran contrary to accepted dogma. Observations, data, evidence and practical applications of science to the contrary do not dissuade people who believe in their culture’s stories of creation. These are durable, multi-generational beliefs that are transmitted through the millenia.

The only way, then, to reliably evade the bias and flaws of our own thinking is the scientific method, and to look for facts to disprove our own theories vs. looking for ways to prove our own theory. Through science, we are able to develop questions, make predictions, observe measurements, form hypotheses that are then tested and shared. Only then can we develop reliable theories and gain knowledge.

So why are human beliefs formed without the scientific method usually, but not always, so flawed? According to Ralph Lewis, writing  in Psychology Today :

“All of us are working under beliefs that are prone to error, because we have a preference for familiar conclusions over unfamiliar ones.

When we receive new information, our strong preference is to fit it into an existing framework, rather than repeatedly constructing the framework from scratch.

Think about it. Have you ever been accused of doing something, just because you have done something similar in the past, such as eating the last cookie; or have you ever jumped to a conclusion, only to find out later that you were wrong? I think all of us have experienced this in life to one degree or another.

Due to these cognitive assumptions, our own thinking actually prevents us from coming up with accurate beliefs, unless rigorously tested and treated with skepticism.

To make matters worse, many beliefs work together, and are strengthened by, inter-related belief networks across social groups. For example, those people interested in conspiracy theories in general, are more likely to believe in the flat-earth theory, faked moon landings and outlandish JFK assasination plots.

Belief networks made up of those people who believe in conspiracy theories in general and strengthen beliefs in individual conspiracies.. This brings more people together into social groups and validates their individual beliefs. It is much easier to agree as a group, then to stand up as an individual and question beliefs.

When extended through social networking platforms, geographically distributed people can reach out to each other and easily share and spread ideas. Today, almost no idea is too radical or, “off the charts crazy” to gain proponents. This is precisely because the ideas can quickly find traction amongst a group of geographically dispersed individuals with the flimsiest of evidence. Given the billions of people on the earth, this phenomena would seem to continue to accelerate at the speed of internet adoption globally – a scary proposition.

Why are our brains so easily fooled? Unfortunately, we all have a built in bias to accept beliefs based upon culture, what our social group tells us is true, parents, charismatic people and we form our own beliefs and theories. From there, most of us will filter out information that demonstrates our beliefs and theories are untrue or incomplete, and only favor positive information that seemingly reinforces our belief.

Unfortunately, most people will not change false beliefs that are core to their identity throughout their lifespan, due to this phenomenon. They will continue to look for evidence that reinforces their belief, and throw out evidence contrary to them.

Since we have invested personally into our beliefs, and it would be quite embarrassing and painful to admit that we were completely wrong and change, it is much easier to simply dig in deeper and defend our beliefs as correct, even if we ourselves suspect that the foundations of our beliefs rest on shaky ground.

However, this is precisely what we must do. Those of us who have seen new facts or information that we have not considered before must change our beliefs. This should be celebrated, not ridiculed or judged harshly. Those of us who are able to change and grow based upon the facts are contributing to a better society by moving away from harmful beliefs. It is those who are too hidebound to change that should be admonished. 

It is important to remember, also, that we need to have love and compassion for those who ardently hold to false beliefs, as we are all susceptible to the same condition

To sum it up, we are pre-wired to accept false beliefs, maladaptive behaviors, and many of these can and do lead to harm. 

However, when presented with evidence and data, we must make the conscious decision to shift. Or continue to value false beliefs, which is a detriment to society and often ourselves.

About my well meaning friend from Idaho who doesn’t care what people believe, as long as they believe something; I can now state (with love and affection) that I do not agree with this statement. I do care about what people believe because false or incorrect beliefs can and do lead to creating human misery. My goal in this podcast series is to take a fact based review to determine what beliefs we are discussing as a culture are valid, meaning their underlying assumptions are true, and the belief structures are relevant and helpful, and which ones are not and lead to harm.


The focus is to apply this lens to some of today’s biggest hot button issues, to eliminate bias as much as possible, and come to a conclusion based upon data or scientific evidence.
Please leave me your feedback, positive, negative or neutral, it will be used to help improve. 

Thank you for listening and here are some upcoming episodes to keep on the lookout for:


Distrust of the Government in US