Why Does Your Brain Keep False Beliefs?

The methods that our brains use to form our beliefs have been influenced by an evolutionary push to be more efficient instead of accurate. Abstract belief creation, which is those beliefs that are conveyed through language and not by our experiences, is most likely one of the truly few things that make us uniquely human, and this makes it fairly new within the span of evolutionary time.

History of Belief Formation

Prior to language, our ancestors would create a new belief only through the things that they experienced directly within the physical world that existed around them. And for these perceptual beliefs that come straight from our direct sensory experiences, so this makes it reasonable to assume that our senses would not lie to us. After all, seeing is indeed believing. Because in those early days, if you questioned what you saw or heard could have gotten you eaten. And for our ancestors, it was always much better to be safe rather than sorry – particularly if the decisions is whether or not a lion is sitting in the nearby grass.

This is why we humans did not exercise very much skepticism whenever our beliefs pertained to those things that we experienced directly – particularly whenever our life is on the line. Then as our language began to form, we gradually became able to begin forming beliefs about issues and things that we had not experienced directly for ourselves. And many of them we began to believe very strongly.

Our Brains Don’t Update Beliefs that are False – But We Do

The fact is many of our beliefs are probably harmless. Lots of them were most likely picked up in the environment that we grew up in. The problems come from the risk of not keeping these beliefs current. We tend to hold onto beliefs even though the basis for those beliefs might have changed. And on top of this, we still keep forming beliefs without performing any due diligence on any of them, and sometimes we even keep them after getting corrective information that directly contradicts our chosen beliefs.

In the year 1994, scientists and researchers Colleen Seifert and Hollyn Johnson requested that their study subjects to examine and read messages regarding a warehouse fire. Some of those messages claimed that this fire began close to a closet that contained paint cans and gas cylinders, and it encouraged them to make a connection. And then, after receiving five additional messages, these same subjects get a correction which explained that this closet had actually been empty, the subjects still responded to questions regarding the fire by placing blame on burning paint and referred to neglect of having flammable objects stored close by. So it seems that seeking the real truth – the desire in knowing the actual truth even though it may not align with our current beliefs – actually opposes the way our brains process data.

So we may need to step up and give some assistance to our brains occasionally. Whenever you have an argument with someone about a topic you passionately believe in, it might be a good idea to determine why you believe in it and why. Sometimes, a little skepticism goes a long way.