Why Do You Think What You Think?

This is a topic that has fascinated me for a long time, as I am a fairly introspective person, by which I simply mean, “Why do I think what I think, and why do I think that what I think is right, and what others think is wrong?” This question is IMO particularly relevant when it comes to faith, politics, and science, but of course, it should equally apply to every aspect of life. IMO, the unexamined life is a rather dull one, and an unexamined belief in anything is fairly useless. If you don’t know WHY you believe something, how in the world can you claim it’s right and others are wrong? If you actually examine the underlying foundations for your beliefs, you might find you’re wrong, and where does that leave you (me)?

How Does Our Mind Work? How WELL Does It Work?

At the moment, I’m reading Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman, which examines this very subject, and to say the least, it is already challenging many of my own beliefs about myself, what I think, why I think it, how my thoughts may be in error, and how to start thinking about how I think to think better. Wow…..how many times did I use the word, “think” in that one sentence!?!?! LOL
This book was recommended to me by a dental colleague, who has studied the effects of bias, belief, etc. in the scientific research on which many of our dental procedures are founded. I respect this colleague tremendously and have learned a great deal from him clinically, but recently have learned far more about the biases that form many of my decision-making algorithms when treating patients. He and I were recently engaged in a debate on a popular dental forum, challenging the claims and rationale of another dental lecturer, and it was fascinating to observe the biases and resistance to change even within a group of colleagues. The discussion led me to examine my own beliefs, too, and this book is continuing that challenge.
Consider for yourself this thought process:
  • Why do you think what you think?
    • Why do you think you’re correct?
      • Are you actually correct, i.e. have you tested it?
        • How would you know if you’re wrong?
          • If you’re actually wrong, are you able to change what you think?
            • What happens if you find that your change in thinking is still wrong and has to be adjusted again?

Changing Our Beliefs Can Be Frightening

A Change in Faith
bibleAt this point in my life (I turn 43 in a month), examining my own beliefs and challenging them has become somewhat routine. Not to say that it’s easy, but it’s not something that frightens me as it once did. Many years ago, however, this was not the case, and I still remember the profound FEAR that I experienced in the late 1990’s when I read Why Christianity Must Change or Die, by (ret.) Bishop John Shelby Spong.
At that time, when I was in my late 20’s, I had been a devout Christian my entire life, and truly could not comprehend NOT believing in God and the Bible. I had some doubts and questions but simply assumed that these were normal and signs that my faith was not yet mature enough or strong enough. These questions included the following (not a comprehensive list, just a sampling):
  • Why would God condemn all non-Christians to Hell, even if they were good people?
  • How could one reconcile a belief in the Bible and and science?
  • Why would God allow bad things to happen to Christians?
  • If Christians claim they’re God’s chosen people because they claim the Bible says so, what makes them exclusively right, when Muslims claim the same thing because the Koran tells them so; or when Jews claim the Torah tells them so, or Buddhists make similar claims? “I’m right because my Holy Book says so,” becomes very circular logic.
  • Given that Christianity had evolved over time on a number of issues/ideas that were once considered worthy of death to ones that were accepted, how could we be so certain that new “critical” issues are set in stone, such as:
    • Slavery
    • Women’s rights
    • The Earth going around the sun and not the Sun around the Earth
    • Divorce
    • Gay marriage
When I read Spong’s book, somehow it crystallized my doubts and questions to the point that I reached a crisis in my Christian faith. I experienced a profound FEAR that perhaps…somehow…..Christianity isn’t the absolute truth that I have believed it to be. Yet my doubts were so strong, I could not simply reject them and return to a blind faith that ignored them. After a personal spiritual journey of several years , I chose to leave Christianity to maintain intellectual integrity – I could no longer go to church and say the words when I no longer believed them in my heart or mind.
A Change in Beliefs about Money & Success
money-signSimilarly, back around 2006-2007, I was forced to a different reexamination of my beliefs about money, success, wealth, and happiness. At the time, my dental practice was mired in so much debt and doing so badly, my new wife was challenging me to close it down and go work for someone else. I had piled up a mountain of unpaid bills, another mountain of credit card debt, and that was on top of the mountain of debt from opening my office back in Dec. 1999. Fortunately, I had begun listening to some audiobooks on my iPod having to do with success and wealth, and they forced me to start thinking about HOW I dealt with money (really badly) and WHY I dealt with money the way I did.
It would require writing an entire book to describe the many beliefs in my subconscious that were held me back and led to the really stupid financial decisions that I’d made for many years, so I’ll address them in future posts. However, I realized that it was truly my BELIEFS about money, and that all I had to do was CHANGE MY BELIEFS, and then my actions and results would change. I think it was Secrets of the Millionaire Mind by T. Harv. Eker that summarized many of my erroneous beliefs, and I strongly recommend that book if you’re struggling financially.
While not quite as frightening as the internal religious turmoil, it was nevertheless more than a little depressing to realize that I was the cause of my own financial wreck. In the end, however, it was also liberating to realize that I could change my beliefs and then change the results that I was getting. It wasn’t easy – after all, who really wants to accept that it’s your own fault that you’re a financial failure? It’s so much easier to blame the economy, blame circumstances, blame your boss, blame your parents…..it’s so much easier to be a victim. And yes, it’s so much harder to reject the easy beliefs and to choose the hard path, especially when it means you have to radically change what you believe, and who you think you are, to get the results you actually want.
And while I’ll talk more about the changed results in future posts about success, and I certainly don’t want anyone to think that I’m some super-financial success story, and I’m not going to tell you about my bank account, I can tell you these this: between 2006 and 2013, we (my wife was instrumental in this!) went from near bankruptcy to purchasing our dream home in an amazing neighborhood, taking our business from nearly closing down to thinking of a partnership and expansion, and from debt that made us despair every time we thought about it to paying off huge chunks of it and even being able to strategically take on new debt for new goals. And bear in mind – this all took place during the worse economic recession that the world has seen since the Great Depression of the 1930’s. And it all started simply by changing my beliefs about money.

Why is Changing Our Beliefs so Difficult?

There is a fairly simple reason why a radical change in our belief systems can be challenging – it leaves you without a comfortable foundation by which to make evaluative decisions about virtually everything in life. Such a change disrupts the automatic responses that we use in our everyday interactions with our world, and it’s painful to suddenly have to actually THINK about each and every such interaction. Kahneman talks about System 1 as our automatic responses and System 2 as our more effortful thinking, and to radically disrupt System 1 forces more use of System 2 to establish new norms of understanding, acting, and responding, which require more mental WORK. Such mental work is literally exhausting, and to maintain such effort for the amount of time necessary to develop a new framework is too demanding for most people, especially given the demands of our 24/7 world.
One point that I find especially interesting to consider, however, is this: we are CONSTANTLY in the process of changing our beliefs as we grow and mature and are exposed to new information that must be either absorbed or discarded. This can be especially seen in the development of our personalities and beliefs during the middle school, high school, and college years, as our educational system in the USA tends to force exposure to a wide range of ideas and experiences as part of the process of helping students determine their paths in life. I have a teenage daughter myself, who just began her freshman year of college, and she is already telling us about what she’s learning; it brings back memories of my own college years and those experiences, and I remember some of what I absorbed and some of what I discarded…..YET, what she absorbs or discards of those same ideas may end up being different from what I did. So this is a process that we are already and constantly undergoing..but for most, it is a slow and unconscious effort.
What’s the Conclusion?
First off, let me state clearly, I am not saying that you should re-examine your religious faith and leave it like I did. Nor am I saying that I am a money genius and you should take my financial advice. NO – although I won’t be surprised at some comments that take offense at my examples and tell me how wrong I am, while they completely miss the whole point of the article. The ultimate irony and example of the points I’m making…….
I deliberately chose 2 major transformations in my own life (remember, this is my personal blog) as examples, because they are indeed big ones. However, they are merely dramatic examples to drive home a point – we all go through changes in our lives, some big and some small, that represent changes in how be think, believe, and act. No one ever thinks and believes the same things about life at the age of 20 as they did at age 10; nor at age 30 as they did at age 20, nor at age 50 as at age 30, and so on. It seems very few people stop and reflect on this, and then take the opportunity to think about their current beliefs in a critical manner to see if they need to be adjusted or changed, or if they still hold true.
What is most remarkable about Thinking, Fast and Slow to me, is the myriad SMALL examples that they give of how we come to believe what we believe, and how often those beliefs are based far less on actual logic, reason, or evidence than we think they are. He points out why we are more prone to see the errors in other people’s thinking than in our own, and how to become aware of the biases that affect us, and to examine their validity. I’ll be writing more about the book and my own self-examination as I make progress.
So how have you changed your thoughts? Was it easy or hard? What prompted you to re-examine strongly-held beliefs in small things or big things? Or perhaps were you challenged to examine your beliefs, do the examination, and find yourself strengthened in your current position? How willing are you to admit your own error before looking for those in others?