The psychology of belief

Many years ago I wrote an article called belief explained. You can find a 2007 version of it on a website called A development of that was an article called the psychology of belief. You can find a 2010 version of that on a forum called I wrote it because way back in about 2006, I realised that I believed in things for which there was no scientific evidence at all. I don’t just mean things like religion and politics. I mean things in physics. I’d read just about every popular science book going, and had been exposed to all sorts of things, such as wormholes, the holographic principle, and superstrings:

Superstring image from Superstring theory is inspiring practical applications – Nikkei Asia

But one day, after a particular online exchange, I found myself looking in the mirror asking myself how do you know that the things you believe in are true? It was an uncomfortable moment. Especially since my answer was because of the evidence, and my retort was what evidence? I came to appreciate that many things in the popscience books and articles had no supporting evidence at all. That’s when I came to appreciate something called the psychology of belief. I think it’s worth my while to repeat my thoughts on that. What follows is a version from 2009. Apologies if you’ve already read it, but it’s as true now as it was then. Perhaps even more so.

We take them for granted, and we believe in them

When I analysed my basic concepts, I found things that weren’t real, that don’t exist, that we never actually see. But we assume they’re real, we take them for granted, and we believe in them. Because we have holes in our understanding, holes that we’ve all grown up with. We’ve lived with them for so long that we don’t know they’re there. We cover them up with ignorance of our ignorance, with blindness of our blind spot, and we shield ourselves with a peer pressure that persuades us there are no alternatives to consider. We do it because we are social animals, we follow the herd, we’re prey to groupthink. That’s the way we are. So much so, that we even place our faith in negative carpets.

A negative carpet

What’s a negative carpet? Well, let’s say that the wife is so impressed with the new lounge carpet, that she now wants a new carpet for the baby’s bedroom. The room is square, and we need sixteen square metres. What’s the square root of sixteen? There are two solutions, four and minus four. So wise guy that I am, I opt for the latter solution, and get down on my hands and knees to cut a big fat square out of our brand new living room carpet. I roll it up, put it over my shoulder, and take it to the carpet shop, walking backwards for dramatic effect. I hand it over to the proprietor and pay him a minus ten pound note, which I stick in my pocket, then go back home to crack open a bottle of wine and greet my guests. We’re standing in the living room talking about my negative carpet and discussing its negative mass when the wife walks in. She stands there open-mouthed for a heartbeat or two as I begin to explain the merely technical details of relocation to the baby’s bedroom. Then all hell breaks loose.

The Hell depiction I used was the rightmost frame of  The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch

The thing about all this, is that a solution is sometimes crazy, but it’s not always plain. People just don’t spot it. So we talk about it quite seriously without examining whether it’s a real solution. We end up taking it for granted and using it to search for further solutions. Then when we struggle, we forget to track back to the beginning and look at the things we took for granted. We don’t realise we’re riding a negative carpet to never-never land, and that’s why we’re getting nowhere. What it all boils down to, is that a negative carpet doesn’t exist. It isn’t real. It’s just a figment of our imagination, an abstraction, a belief. And beliefs can cause all sorts of problems. Some people believe in Santa Claus, and some people believe in fairies, despite that fact that there is absolutely no material evidence to support the existence of these things. We smile at the gullibility that foolish people show, but we forget that we too believe in things for which there is no material evidence. Things like time travel, unseen dimensions, and parallel worlds:

Blue marble images thanks to NASA

We’ve all got our beliefs. That’s the way we are. I’ve got them, and so do you. It was Feynman who said “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool”. This is more true than you realise. It’s true because when you’ve fooled yourself, you don’t know it. You convince yourself that you haven’t fooled yourself, and you develop a conviction, a faith, a belief about it. You’ll be quite irrational in defence of this belief. You won’t test your belief in an empirical scientific fashion. Instead, when challenged, you’ll become defensive or incredulous. If you don’t behave this way, that’s fine, you’re not a believer. You merely have an opinion, and an open mind. But let me demonstrate something: You don’t have an open mind. You’re fooling yourself. At which point I imagine you’re bristling already. See how it works? If you really believe something and I challenge it, it’s all too easy to construe the challenge as an insult, and then become hostile and unreasonable. That’s human nature. Everybody likes to think they have an open mind, and very few understand that about some things at least, they don’t. The truth is this: you’re not quite as open minded or as rational as you think. This is hard to accept, but that’s the way it is. It’s like that because if you believe something, you don’t need to think about it. Because you already know the answer. Hence you’re less receptive than you should be. And so you don’t look at the out-of-the-box solutions that solve the problems that have troubled you all your life.

Seventy two virgins waiting for them in paradise

Stop a minute and think about it. Why do you think we have suicide bombers? What on Earth possesses them to think that there’s seventy two virgins waiting for them in paradise? What possesses them is something called The Psychology of Belief. And they don’t think, that’s just it. This thing is far more powerful and far more prevalent than you know. There’s a whole spectrum of belief out there. Think about Young Earth Creationists and their Intelligent Design friends. You can talk to these people until you’re blue in the face, but they’re totally immune to logic because they believe that they’re right. You can say anything and everything, but they duck and dive and dismiss every last scrap of evidence you throw at them. Everything you say goes whoosh, in one ear and out the other. They just aren’t listening. They just aren’t thinking. The weird thing is that they don’t know they’re immune to logic. These guys aren’t lying to you. They don’t have a rational open mind, but they don’t know it. They think they’re being perfectly rational, and you’re just some crazy fool who just doesn’t know.

Tony Auth Intelligent Design © 2005 The Philadelphia Inquirer. Reprinted with permission of Universal Press Syndicate. All rights reserved.

It doesn’t stop at religion. There’s ideology, Kafkaesque bureaucracy, and dynastic communism, all the sorts of things that can end up with starvation, murder, and Nazi death camps. There’s racism, tribalism, and insane conspiracy theories, all leading to enmity and hate and violence. There’s heroin, crack, and alcohol addiction where people die before their time. Moving down the scale there’s anorexia and obesity, and the dieting that makes you fat as your body sets store for a rainy day. Then there’s gentler symptoms like fashion, where folk let themselves be brainwashed into thinking purple is the new black. Or swaggering around with some eco cotton bag containing the keys for the 4×4 and the plane tickets. It affects everybody to some degree, even people who consider themselves to be utterly rational and totally open minded. Everybody’s got some kind of belief about something. When you find it and hit it, whoosh, everything you say goes in one ear and out the other. They just don’t listen. They just don’t think. It’s like the shutters are down and there’s nobody home.

Would you like to put yourself to the test?

Would you like to put yourself to the test? This will show you what I mean. This will demonstrate that you’re not immune to The Psychology of Belief. Nobody is, not even me. Take a look at the picture below:

Checker-shadow illusion by Edward Adelson

OK, here’s the deal: squares A and B are the same colour. They’re the same shade of grey. Oh no they’re not, I hear you say. Oh yes they are I insist. Oh no they’re not you answer back. We could do this all day, but I’m afraid I’m right and you’re wrong. They really are the same colour. Squares A and B are the same shade of grey. The apparent difference in colour is the illusion. Let me prove it. It’s very simple. Just tilt the page so you’re looking at it from a narrow angle. Alternatively fold the paper to get the two squares next to one another. Another method is look through a small hole to remove the context that fooled you into fooling yourself. You can look at it online if you wish. Google on “checkershadow illusion” or go directly to Checkershadow Illusion (, then you can see for yourself. You can even download an image and check it out with photoshop. Satisfy yourself. Be empirical, test yourself, find a way to stop fooling yourself. Then you realise that A and B really are the same colour.

Checker-shadow illusion revealed

Don’t be surprised. I told you The Psychology of Belief is powerful. More powerful than you ever dreamed. What’s surprising is just how common it is, even amongst scientists. If you don’t believe me, you should look up paradigm on Wikipedia, and read The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn. Conviction is a hard nut to crack, and it applies to scientists too. It’s the way we are, the way we think. Why do you think Bruno got burned at the stake? Why do you think it took Einstein seventeen years to get a Nobel Prize for the wrong thing? And why do you think there’s that saying: catch ‘em young? It’s because there are people out there who are quite fully aware that if you instil children with a belief they’ll carry on believing it come heaven or high water. These children remain so utterly convinced, that they grow up to become adults who will fight and die for it. But we’re not going to fight and die for something like The Capacity To Do Work are we? Because we are rational, we have an open mind, and we listen and we think.

Can you explain energy to your grandmother?

Yes, The Capacity To Do Work. Einstein said you don’t really understand something unless you can explain it to your grandmother. Can you explain energy to your grandmother? You might believe you can, but the chances are you’re fooling yourself, and your explanation is no explanation at all. Your grandmother will peer at you over her bifocals, suck on her false teeth, say Thank you Dear, and then she’ll carry on with her knitting. She’s too polite to say it, because butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth. But what she really meant is: Capacity To Do Work my arse.

Grandmother image by James Charles

Come on now, The Capacity To Do Work is no explanation at all. You swallowed that when you were young and gullible, and you haven’t looked at it since. Energy is a simple basic concept that you really ought to understand, but you don’t. And you don’t know that you don’t. Because Donald Rumsfeld was right. And what you also don’t know, is that The Capacity To Do Work is merely a label that covers up a hole in your understanding. A hole that you’ve grown up with, that’s been there so long it’s like a blind spot, all grown over with such thick skin that you don’t even know it’s there any more. I’ll show you the holes in your understanding. I’ll peel back those labels and fill the holes with concepts that are crystal clear. Then you can stop fooling yourself. But remember this, it’s important: the basic concepts I will give you are better than the concepts you hold now. But don’t ever think they’re perfect. Don’t fool yourself that you’ve stopped fooling yourself. Keep that open mind open.



PS: My final words were Buckle up. Here we go, but that was just a lead-in so it doesn’t belong above.

This Post Has 5 Comments

  1. Greg R. Leslie

    MEA CULPA on all points mentioned in this last essay John.

    I also am reminded of the famous William Paley/ Herbert Spencer quote about “…..contempt prior to investigation.”

    There definitely is lots of conformational bias going on everywhere by everybody on all subjects under the sun, with modern technology helping to keep us masses willfully ignorant and perpetually kornfused & stoopid……………

    1. Thanks Greg. If anything, I think things have gotten worse since I wrote the first version of this essay. I can only hope that with practice, I am nowadays better at having a current-best-fit opinion, rather than some entrenched belief that is impervious to both scientific evidence and the bleeding obvious. For example, one of my current-best-fit opinions is that a woman is a member of mankind who has a womb rather than a penis. LOL!

  2. Raf

    Hi John, I just got your book in the postbox, I plan to read it over the long weekend. I saw that you tried to engage with science forums in the past and how hostile this environmnent is. I would say keep up the good work, but also be mindfull that a lot of things in this blog are also believes (and you can word your believes very strongly), and we need to come up with (mathematical) proof that things are indeed different from what is considered mainstream.
    I know you have said that most these ideas come from other people, you are just bringing it together and adding some elements, and most scientists say a lot of these concepts are disproven (but in many cases that is just a belief, since the interpretation of experiments is wrong), the burden of proof is still upon us. Intuitively a lot of the stuff you have on this blog just feels right, that is why I also bought your book… All the best, Raf

    1. Raf, aw, you should have said. I would have sent you one gratis. The book dates from 2009, and IMHO isn’t as thorough as the articles here. I did this website because I wanted all this stuff to be freely available, with working hyperlinks, and with an opportunity to give feedback.
      I’d say most forums are extremely hostile, and are patrolled by thought-police making sure there’s no deviation from the “mainstream” and the “lies to children” that are presented as bona-fide science. I hope there aren’t too many things in this blog that are beliefs, and instead I hope that they’re current-best-fit opinions backed up by hard-scientific evidence. For example optical clocks go slower when they’re lower, and it’s light moving through them, not time. As for mathematical proofs, whilst mathematics is a vital tool for physics, it isn’t what physics is. Hence a mathematical proof is no substitute for hard scientific evidence. See for example where I was talking about Bell and said this:
      “Instead he launched into a mathematical “proof” that ended up with a declaration that “there must be a mechanism whereby the setting of one measuring device can influence the reading of another instrument, however remote”. I found that really unusual. It’s like saying you’ve come up with a mathematical proof for the existence of heaven and hell”.
      But I take your point. It’s down to people like us to point out the low-hanging fruit that can be gainfully employed in the advancement of science. That’s why I’m doing this. But please do tell me more about “most scientists say a lot of these concepts are disproven”. I struggle to find any debate on this sort of thing. I’d say there’s stonewalling and censorship, and that a lot of these concepts are studiously ignored, but I don’t see debate. If you can show me some perhaps I could participate?

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