MARK MANSON: Believe Not What’s True, But What’s Helpful
Two men were in a bar in Alaska drinking and talking about God (two things that naturally go together).
One of them men said: “Look, there is no God and I’ll prove it. Just a few weeks ago I got caught in a blizzard without any supplies. I was surely going to freeze to death. So I decided I would try out the whole God thing. I got down on my knees and prayed. I told him if he saved me, I would promise to always believe in him.”
The other man looked at him perplexed, “Well, you’re here, right? He obviously saved you!” The man replied, “No he didn’t. Some Eskimos came by a few minutes later and picked me up to take me back to town. God didn’t do anything.”
This apocryphal story is passed around quite a bit as an example about how two people can come away with completely opposite interpretations from the same exact story.
How you perceive the above story, or any other story for that matter, depends on the beliefs you choose to accept. Kind of like the glass half full, glass half empty thing.
Anyone who’s spent enough time on the internet knows that just about anything can be debated. You may believe that you need to get good grades in university to get a good job. That belief can be debated. You may believe that you need to save a certain amount of money each month to ensure your future. It can be debated. You may believe that being respectful and honest is the best way to create good relationships with people, and even that can be debated.
One thing that disheartened me when I dug deep into the psychological research on things like attraction, happiness, success, motivation, growth and development, was that there’s almost never a consensus. There’s just data. And a lot of that data is debated.
It was the same thing when I dove into the gender debate. What are the neurobiological diﬀerences between men and women? What parts of gender roles are innate and what parts are cultural?
There’s no consensus. Just a lot of data, and that data is… yeah, you guess it, debated. The same is true with nutrition to a large degree. The same is true with ﬁtness.
There are even still large gaps in the knowledge of physics and biology. Scientists in even the hardest sciences have been shown to aﬀect the outcomes of their experiments through unconscious biases.
Their own beliefs inﬂuenced the results they wanted to ﬁnd and therefore they unconsciouslyinﬂuenced the way the experiment was carried out. And I’m not even going to touch religion – but let’s just say that when “faith” is proclaimed as your number one virtue, you’re surviving on belief.
The point is, whether we realize it or not, at some point we choose all of our beliefs. Sometimes we choose them consciously for very speciﬁc reasons. Sometimes we choose them unconsciously (parents pushed them on us, or they met an unconscious need of ours).
Everything we think and believe today at some point along the way we made the decision to buy into it, to decide it was true for us.
This applies to everything.
You and I never actually saw the Napoleonic Wars. We didn’t witness the Holocaust or the Moon Landing. We just accept them on fact because enough people have said they happened.
(And sure enough, there are some loons who question that these occurrences happened. They have, once again, chosen to adopt diﬀerent beliefs.)
Almost everything we know is secondhand and based on belief. But even when it comes to experiences we have ﬁrsthand, recent psychological research shows that our perceptions of our own experiences are often unreliable.
Psychologist Daniel Kahneman demonstrated that we actually remember very few speciﬁcs about experiences and that at later dates we “patch holes”
in our memories with our assumptions and, yes, our beliefs. Other researches have demonstrated that we often adapt our beliefs to what conforms to our emotions and impulses, not based on what actually happened or what the evidence suggests.
But so what?
What’s wrong with believing whatever we want? What’s wrong with having inaccurate memories and seeing experiences the way we want to see them and not really knowing for sure what’s for certain or not?
Why can’t we just go with whatever we feel like believing, with what we’ve always believed? The problem is that not every belief helps us. And some beliefs hurt us. The problem is also something in psychology called the conﬁrmation bias.
The conﬁrmation bias is the human tendency to only notice and observe phenomena that support our prior beliefs.
For instance, an Indian person who believes white people are racist will only notice instances of white people being rude towards minorities and not notice the hundreds of instances where they’re kind to minorities.
They don’t do this on purpose; it’s an unconscious bias.
A person who believes they’re ugly will only notice people who react negatively to their appearance and not notice people who react positively.
A person who thinks they’re dumb will dwell on all of the mistakes they make instead of noticing and accepting the recognition and praise for the smart work they’ve done.
I worked as a dating coach for a few years. I met and helped all over the world, men of all ethnicities, from ages 18 to 59.
There were numerous times where a client would hire me, I’d ﬂy out to his city and meet him at the airport, and there he’d be: tall, chiseled chin, good physique, well dressed. He’d stand up tall and shake my hand ﬁrmly. He’d be a software engineer or a lawyer or a ﬁnancial analyst or some other impressive profession.
My immediate reaction would be “What problem does this guy have with women?” But I would soon ﬁnd out. We’d go out and meet some women together and within minutes you could see it, he believed he was unattractive.
From my perspective, women would be all over him, ﬂirting with him, eyeing him from across the room, smiling at him. To me the signals were obvious. But in his mind he was ugly, unattractive and undesirable, so all he saw were women being polite, tolerating his presence and showing no interest in him.
As a result, not only would he not act on the opportunities he had with women, but also his attitude would actually become negative and turn women oﬀ. I saw this time and time again.
It was an amazing lesson in conﬁrmation bias that I was exposed to over and over again. I’ve run into similar debilitating biases in men when it comes to race, height, money and even their personalities. In all cases, they sabotage themselves with their poor beliefs.
I’ve sat and had engaging, interesting two-hour conversations with men who honestly told me that people didn’t like them because they couldn’t engage them in conversations well enough.
A lot of times our problems are not actually problems, but rather symptoms of unhelpful beliefs.
It doesn’t matter whether a belief is true or not; what matters is whether it’s helpful.
Believing you are ugly, or undesirable, or not interesting enough – these may or may not be true in various circumstances. But they can never be proven one way or another. So why not assume they’re untrue? What do you have to lose?
I realize that choosing what you believe is not as simple as switching on a dime. It’s a much more complicated process which I can get into another time.
What I’m trying to do here is plant seeds.
The next time you feel stupid or insecure, ask yourself if that’s a useful belief to have.
The next time you feel incompetent or like you’re incapable of accomplishing something, ask yourself if that’s a useful belief to have.
The next time you feel unattractive and undesirable, or that a situation is impossible, ask yourself if that’s a useful belief to have.
Because it doesn’t matter what’s true or what’s not. The truth is up for endless debate in most circumstances. So why not debate on the side that helps you?
Jeng, M. (2006). A selected history of expectation bias in physics. American Journal of Physics, 74(7), 578–583.
Redelmeier, D. A., & Kahneman, D. (1996). Patients’ memories of painful medical treatments: real-time and retrospective evaluations of two minimally invasive procedures. Pain, 66(1), 3–8.
Kardash, C. M., & Scholes, R. J. (1996). Effects of preexisting beliefs, epistemological beliefs, and need for cognition on interpretation of controversial issues. Journal of Educational Psychology, 88(2), 260
Nickerson, R. S. (1998). Confirmation bias: A ubiquitous phenomenon in many guises. Review of General Psychology, 2(2), 175.