Adopting Beliefs

If Trump was gung-ho about masks would masks have been politicized?

The more you think about that question the more uncomfortable you become.

I have questions.

  • Would liberals have been the mask-deniers?
  • Would pro-mask research from the science community be suppressed from the left?
  • Would pro-mask research from the generally left-leaning science community actually be boosted from the right?
  • What arguments in favor of masks would a Trump base promote if they were not rooted in science?

These questions are unsettling because one wouldn’t think masks would become political. Do you think it’s possible that the red and blue positions could have been exactly flipped based on Trump’s mood towards masks (I know it’s hard to imagine him embracing masks but what if he saw them as the key to business as usual, or if you are more cynical, if he happened to have a stake in the world’s largest N95 manufacturer)?

Is there a limit to “my enemy’s enemy is my friend” logic?

I hate to be a pessimist, but the answer is no. The mind can rationalize anything. Every historical human atrocity had a wave of support. Support from ordinary people who were once innocent children. Blank slates.

Let’s see how. I have broken this into 2 parts as I’m trying to keep these letters compact.

Part I: How We Adopt Beliefs

1. Belief precedes reasoning

The mind doesn’t see facts then build beliefs on top of them. It starts with beliefs then finds facts to support them. This is hard-wired. Kids believe in Santa based on trust. Then around age 7 their ability to reason takes a big leap forward and the fantasy melts away from the heat of logic. The Santa story has too many holes in it to believe.

Yet, we have flat-earthers.

This is instructive. Survival doesn’t depend on accurate abstract logic (although luxuries like circumnavigating the world does). Survival just depends on accurate beliefs about sensory perception. Fire burns. Falling hurts. These beliefs don’t rely on knowing the reasons. This is merciful. Reasons are not our strong suit.

Annie Duke on the dangers of holding beliefs before we vet them:

  1. We often fail to later vet the ideas we are wandering around with in our heads.
  2. If we do vet, we are biased. This leads to what Kahneman called “motivated reasoning”. Examples:
    • Confirmation bias. You know, ignoring evidence that doesn’t fit. Finding patterns in randomness. Ouija.
    • Blindspots. Often willful.
    • Smart people being often more extreme in their biases because they rationalize with greater repertoire.

So the main takeaway:

Out of the box, we really have no trouble believing things without logic. If someone tells us it’s important to have reasons to support our opinions, we come fully-equipped to mine for them after the fact. Or simply make them up.

2. We outsource opinions

We start our lives by downloading our parents’ beliefs. They are the tribe we are dealt. As we get older, we make friends. They are the tribe we choose. They are like us and make us feel good. If we are so alike, then it follows that what’s good for them is good for us. What a great shortcut. Instead of researching every opinion or decision a citizen needs to make, we can just let the “you might also like” recommendation algo choose for us.

I sound sarcastic but it is reasonable to outsource decisions to your tribe. You cannot be an expert in everything. Modernity is too specialized and complex. I’ve written in Build Your Own Cabinet about how you need to do this thoughtfully.

Whether or not we do it competently, we cannot help but borrow views from others. But if we cling to those views strongly it’s not because we expended great effort to acquire them. The stickiness of a view is more correlated with the order in which it arrived than the rigor it endured on its way over.

In sum:

Beliefs are either birthed by perception or we adopt them from others. They originate from impressions. They are far more spontaneous than deduced. Your beliefs won’t tell you what to do. They’ll make you feel good about what you do. They are chosen for comfort not speed. They are here to protect more than to serve. They are only invited in if they play well with your other beliefs. You don’t have time nor energy to listen to them quarrel in your head. And lastly, they use the first-in-last-out accounting method.

For all these reasons, it is obvious that once beliefs become tenants they will soon become squatters. You’ll let them live rent-free in your mind. The buyout price doesn’t seem visibly worth it. Once a belief takes up residency it is very difficult to evict.

Next week, in part II, we will see how beliefs become so firmly lodged and how we might loosen the grip on them in ourselves or others.

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