Why we Believe in the Impossible

Since the beginning of time, people have believed in the supernatural to explain things they did not understand. As scientific knowledge and understanding grew, one would think belief in the supernatural would lessen or disappear. Turns out that’s not true. Why do we hold on to false beliefs? Why do we believe in the impossible? The bottom line? Why? We want to believe. (Every one of us.)

signpost states beware of: then points different directions to spiders, monsters, witches, skeletons, ghosts, and zombies--some of us believe in the impossible

What Are False Beliefs?

According to the American Psychological Association, the definition of false beliefs is “a mental proposition that is asserted with high confidence but lacks a basis in reality.” 

What is Reality? 

1: the quality or state of being real

2 a (1): a real event, entity, or state of affairs

his dream became a reality

(2): the totality of real things and events

trying to escape from reality

  b: something that is neither derivative nor dependent but exists necessarily

in reality: in actual fact

Merriam-Webster Dictionary

Myths We Believe

Spooky image that could be fog on a camera lens or a ghostly face in the night sky--we believe in the impossible

A common myth many of us believe is that multi-tasking works. The facts show multi-tasking doesn’t work. “Research reveals that there are capacity limits when engaging in cognitively demanding tasks.”

We also like to believe that a loving and healthy environment can and will change any genetically determined attribute like intelligence. Nurturing is absolutely necessary, but “regardless of ability type, 50 to 70 percent of your talent potential is based solely on genetics.” 

There are people who believe Bigfoot exists, or the curse of a broken mirror, or that this group or action caused a natural disaster. 

From gods to ghosts to all kinds of monsters, despite no evidence supporting their existence, we believe.

Who Has False Beliefs?

We all do. Whether it was something we were “taught” as children, to beliefs we developed through experience, we each hold on to false beliefs.

Studies have shown that people who have and practice a religious belief are less likely to believe in the supernatural. But they may believe in multi-tasking or curses (sin) causing natural disasters.

And people who don’t have a strong religious belief are more likely to believe in the supernatural, like ghosts and Bigfoot and yeti.

There are people who believe that vaccines cause terrible diseases and disabilities. Yet, the science disproves that connection.

Every culture has its set of false beliefs. But not all cultures believe the same set.

Why We Believe in the Impossible

a ufo in the night sky shines a light down on two children--is it a false belief or is it why we believe in the impossible

Short answer? We’re wired that way. Our brains constantly seek cause and effect. 

The long answer? We don’t really know why people persist in their false beliefs despite evidence to the contrary. Some research shows that it’s not education levels or lack thereof. Many college students profess belief in ghosts and Bigfoot.

Do you know why you check your horoscope every morning? Or why you throw a pinch of salt over your shoulder?

I tell myself I do things “for fun.” And sometimes I can laugh and have fun with things like checking my horoscope. Sometimes I’m stunned at how relevant the horoscope seems. Intellectually I know I’m trying to find cause and effect because I want to repeat the good ones and stop the bad ones. Intellectually, I don’t expect those things to work—but I hope they will. Don’t you?

Why We Resist Changing False Beliefs

According to cognitive studies at Stanford, once we’ve formed an impression, we are remarkably resistant to change.

Scientists have identified many forms of “faulty thinking.” Confirmation bias is the tendency people have to embrace information that supports their beliefs and reject information that contradicts them. It’s the most studied of these forms of “faulty thinking.” 

Presented with someone else’s argument, we’re quite adept at spotting the weaknesses. Almost invariably, the positions we’re blind about are our own.

Elizabeth Kolbert, New Yorker, February 20, 2017

Can We Change Our False Beliefs? 

Psychologists think so. The site Psychology Today offers three steps to changing your false beliefs. Usually, psychologists are talking about false beliefs about ourselves. False beliefs like “I don’t deserve anyone’s love.” Or “I’m too clumsy to try to dance ” or “I’m too tone-deaf to sing.” Though with work we can change any false belief.

The problem with changing false beliefs is that the believer must want to change those beliefs. Observing all the hate mongering and tensions in America and other nations right now, I’m not sure anyone is up for the self-reflection needed.

Are All False Beliefs Bad?

snowy night in a pine forest with the flying reindeer against a full moon--believe in the impossible

Many false beliefs are bad for us. False beliefs can hold us back from our best lives. They create stereotypes that cause us to ignore differences between people. Some beliefs lead to a misinterpretation of evidence. These stereotypes and misinterpretations often lead to social disruptions, to hate and crimes against others.

Are some false beliefs good for us? Believing in Santa Claus and flying reindeer isn’t just fun. It might help develop counterfactual reasoning skills.

Engaging the border between what is possible and what is impossible is at the root of all scientific discoveries and inventions, from airplanes to the internet.

Jacqueline Woolley UT News

Legends of heroes and impossible tasks inspire us to be better people, to take leaps of faith. 

Things to Think About

In these days of contention and fear over politics, racial injustices, pandemic issues, natural disasters, and other important issues– both sides might consider reining in all the shouting and name calling. Confirmation bias means the position you’re opposing only sees the weaknesses in your argument no matter who’s “side” you are on.

Our arguing and fears have put us in a bad spot. Many of us feel a pressing need for change. Or is it for control? 

So many of the issues facing us today would be so much easier to deal with if we cooperated with one another. But too many of us are stuck in a “fight or flight” mode. Controlled by our monkey brains. Each “side” thinks the other side should do the “cooperating.” 

We believe in the impossible every day. Consider taking a moment to ask yourself what impossible thing you believe. Ask yourself how you are using confirmation bias. Honestly assess how you are cooperating with the “other” side.

And while you thinking—if we believe in the impossible—let’s believe we’ll have peace and a cooperative resolution to the problems we face today.

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