Thinking about belief

Our milky way above a dead forest, aka 'Woodhenge', near the banks of the river Maas, near the Dutch-Belgian border.

I’ve been thinking about belief, about how it works (and doesn’t). I’ve also been thinking about and why I don’t think about it more. Why we all, collectively, don’t think about it more.

One of the things that is unique to us as humans is our ability to engage in meta cognition – to step outside ourselves and look at how we think. But thinking about thinking and understanding how our beliefs work seems almost as unpalatable as updating our beliefs when new information comes along.

Two things set me down this path:

– An episode of the You Are Not So Smart podcast on Bayes’ Theorem

Sam Harris reading from his book, The End of Faith

Both are about the nature of belief but come at it from completely different sides.

You Are Not So Smart is looking at belief as a greyscale where things are neither true or untrue, but they have a probability of being either. Once we accept this, we can use Bayes’ Theorem to understand the probability around our beliefs and update them when new information comes to hand.

Sam Harris on the other hand is taking a logical sledgehammer to some of the most cherished beliefs we have – those around religion. He shines a light on the dangers inherent in taking our beliefs from ancient texts which don’t stand up to any kind of modern scrutiny and the importance of reforming those beliefs as quickly as possible.

Even if you don’t agree with Harris on religion, there are interesting though experiments and ideas to take away.

Both are broadly concerned with the mechanisms which can either reinforce or erode our beliefs and the value or otherwise in doing so.

I’m still doing the work to required to have an opinion on all of this, but if you’re interested in understanding and challenging what you believe about what you believe – these are two good places to start.

The (sometimes abusive) power of consistency

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Consistency is important to us puny humans, it’s fundamental to how we construct our view of the world. We don’t see the actual world, we construct a model of it in our head.

David McRaney has a great explanation of it.

“You are trapped in a skull, unable to actually interact with the world outside. You depend on messages from sense organs written in code. When you decode the messages, you alter the map and the models, but that’s all you can ever hope to know about the outside world – that map and those models.”

Things which behave, perform and present themselves to us consistently, are easier for us to model.

Things which behave, perform and present themselves to us consistently, are easier for us to model. Similarly, we become uncomfortable when we experience something which is not consistent with our model of it

People are the same. We’re comfortable who act consistently with our model of them – both from a behaviour and a performance perspective.

How we deal with inconsistency

Someone who is always pleasant to us, we model as pleasant.
Someone who is always an arsehole to us, we model as an arsehole.
Someone who is sometimes pleasant and sometimes an arsehole, we tend to defensively model as an arsehole.

As soon as you’re inconsistent, people are tempted to model you against the worst end of your spectrum. It’s easier for them the deal with. If someone is an arsehole a significant percentage of the time, then its simpler (and less painful) to expect that from them in the future.

Likewise with performance. It doesn’t matter if someone’s work is brilliant some of the time. If you rely on the quality of their work output, then their lack of consistency will negatively impact your model of them.

This isn’t perfect by any stretch of the imagination.

The world and the people in it are complex and nuanced, and nobody is pleasant or high performing all of the time.

But our brains don’t care, they want to do what’s easiest, what conserves glucose. Unless we make a deliberate effort, we rest on our models.

What are the real world takeaways?

There are two sides to this:
1) The more consistent you are, the easier things will be with other people. The narrower your spectrum of behaviour or performance, the more likely they are to model you close to your best.

Of course, it’s ok to not be consistent. You might not want to make it easy for others, or not care what they think. But that should be a deliberate choice – not a habit or reflex.

2) The more aware you are of you’re own models, the more you can spot when they’re inconsistent with the actual situation in the here and now. We can sleepwalk through the day quite easily letting our models act as a crutch. But we can also take the time to deliberately notice what’s true now, and use that to update our models – to make them more accurate.

Consistency isn’t everything, but for better or worse it radically influences the default settings we all come with. Best to understand both sides of it and make deliberate choices about how we let it impact our lives.