The Healthy Challenge of Explaining Your Own Beliefs


If you can’t explain to others why you believe the things you do, then it’s unlikely you can explain your beliefs to yourself – and that’s not a good sign.

It’s odd, but a lot of people seem to not know exactly what they believe until they are called upon to describe those beliefs and why they have them.

Instead, most of us take our beliefs for granted.

We feel strongly about our beliefs, even though we don’t think very critically about them, because deep-down we think we must have good reasons behind them, even if we aren’t fully aware of those reasons.

Upon reflection, however, we often find that our beliefs aren’t as sturdy and convincing as we initially thought. This is one of the main reasons we should frequently challenge our beliefs whenever possible.

In one study published in Cognitive Science, they asked participants how well they thought they knew about how everyday devices worked (such as a piano key, a sewing machine, or a zipper), then they had them explain their answers.

The main finding was that people tend to overestimate how much they think they know. For example, when asked to explain how a zipper works, most people realized they didn’t really know once they were called upon to describe it. It seems so simple and familiar to us, but most of us don’t know the details behind it when we really stop to think about it.

This effect is referred to as “the illusion of explanatory depth.” It’s our tendency to overestimate how well we think we understand something.

In another study published in Psychological Science, researchers asked participants what their political beliefs were, how well they thought they understood certain policies associated with those beliefs, and then had them defend those beliefs.

Just like in the first study, participants overestimated how much they thought they knew about their political beliefs and how the policies they advocated would actually play out in the real world.

More surprisingly, once individuals were called upon to give this “mechanistic explanation” of how they thought certain policies would work – and once they became more aware of their own ignorance – they actually changed their political positions to something more moderate.

This is optimistic because it shows that when individuals are directly confronted with their ignorance (and their inability to explain their beliefs more in-depth), then they are more willing to adjust those beliefs.

Challenging your beliefs is one of the central components of popular therapies such as Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy.

The idea is that many people, especially those who may suffer from depression and anxiety, cling to impractical and unrealistic beliefs that have a negative influence on how they think, feel, and act in their daily lives.

The more you challenge your beliefs however, the more flexible and practical your thinking becomes.

This is one of the single most important things you can do to improve your own psychology.

As imperfect minds with imperfect knowledge, we all have “wrong” and “erroneous” beliefs from time to time. But intelligence isn’t about never being wrong, it’s about admitting your ignorance and being willing to change those beliefs when you are confronted with new information.

This isn’t easy work. It’s actually a never-ending process. You may be reading this article and thinking, “Oh, this definitely applies to a lot of people I know, but it doesn’t apply to me.” But you’d be wrong – this stuff applies to everyone.

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