Beliefs have a huge impact on our lives – there’s no doubt about it. Any belief, regardless of how true it is, guides our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors on a daily basis.
A belief reflects our “map of the world.” It helps us navigate through reality. And the kind of map we have is going to greatly affect the paths in life that we choose to take. A bad map may lead you into dark and muggy territory, while a good map leads you to warmth and sunshine.
The fact of the matter is, however, that we all need these beliefs to help guide our lives. Without them, we wander around mindlessly, without direction and purpose.
Everyone has a belief system
Everyone has a belief system whether they choose to acknowledge it or not. The human mind is a “belief factory,” we are constantly observing our world, inferring things about it, and choosing what to do with this knowledge. We need to. Without beliefs, we’d never be able to make decisions or take action in our lives.
Therefore, every decision we make, and action we take, reflects a conscious or unconscious belief.
Beliefs aren’t perfect
In general, the human mind isn’t perfect.
A lot of recent psychology research over the years has demonstrated that our minds are incredibly prone to error and bias. Very often, we aren’t capable of being 100% certain in our beliefs, so we have to make the best with what we have and hope it’s a good enough model of the world, despite our imperfections.
The map is not the territory
There’s a popular mantra in self-help literature which says that “the map is not the territory.”
This is actually an idea first put forward by the Polish scientist and philosopher Alfred Korzybski. His view was that whenever we try to represent something in reality (whether through thoughts, concepts, or even physical representations like a map of a geographical region), we have to remember that the representation is never the thing we are trying to represent.
Instead, our representations of reality are always “best fits.”
Think about it: if you actually had a 100% accurate map of Iceland, then it would have to be the size and shape of Iceland.
Obviously, this is impractical. And our minds know this. So we take the information that comes through our senses and we generalize some of it, delete some of it, and manipulate some of it so that it better serves our practical needs.
Instinctively, your mind isn’t concerned about “absolute truths” about the universe – it just wants “truths” that help you function effectively throughout your immediate environment.
What influences our beliefs?
We often like to think that we come up with our beliefs solely on our own, and without any kind of outside influence, but the truth is that there are a wide array of different factors that shape our belief system. Some of the big ones I like to pay attention to include:
- Authority figures, especially from an early age: parents, teachers, priests, etc.
- Culture, like movies, music, TV, books, religion, tradition, politics, etc.
- Role models, such as the personal lives of musicians, authors, comedians, actors/actresses, philosophers, scientists, artists, celebrities, and even fictional characters.
- Our past experiences, even just one really memorable and/or traumatic event can condition us to have certain beliefs that persist for a lifetime.
- Knowledge, learning and discovering new things about reality can cause us to reshape our beliefs in the face of this new evidence
- Reflection and contemplation, actively introspecting to better understand our beliefs, thought patterns, and how they affect us.
All of these influences can affect our beliefs in a positive or negative way. The key is to be more aware of where our beliefs come from and what factors are shaping our map of the world. If we discover that we learned something unhelpful as a child, or from an old TV program, or whatever, then it may be necessary to filter out some of these negative influences and replace them with something that better suits our values and goals.
Beliefs must be subject to change
Beliefs must be subject to change for two reasons.
One, as I mentioned before, our minds are imperfect and incredibly prone to error. Therefore, it is very reasonable that we will come across new evidence that will challenge our old beliefs and assumptions. When that time comes, it’s important to acknowledge that we may be wrong about something, and only then can we update and correct our map of world.
Note: This can be difficult, because it requires us to put aside personal biases and be honest with ourselves when we discover new information or evidence that challenges our existing beliefs.
Two, every individual has a different window into reality. That’s why our society has such a diverse range of different beliefs. Remember, your mind prefers truths that serve a function within the context of your life, not universal/absolute truths that are often disconnected from practical reality. Therefore, a belief may work perfectly well with one person, but not so well for another person.
The lesson here is that if you only determine your beliefs from outside influences – like your parents, schools, or government – then it is very likely that your “map of the world” won’t suit your interests, values, and goals. Those beliefs ultimately serve the people who found them to be useful in the first place, but they may not serve you in the same way. In the end, you have to think for yourself and question past authorities – this could mean that you will later abandon old beliefs that were taught to you from others.
- What are some old beliefs that you have later needed to change because they didn’t help you?
- What has had the biggest influence on your beliefs?
- How often do you actively introspect and reflect on the beliefs that drive your behavior?
Discover more tools to daily growth in the digital guide The Science of Self Improvement