How we change what others think, feel, believe and do
The Decay of Belief
Belief is assumed truth. It is personal truth, not necessarily absolute truth, even though it seems this way. When a belief is disproven, what happens? Sometimes belief collapses in a moment. Yet sometimes and surprisingly often, we cling to the belief even as it fades in the face of mounting counter-evidence.
The first step in decay is evidence of some kind that our belief is somehow false or misplaced, for example:
Disconfirmation may also come from what other people tell us. For example, they may:
The bottom line is that we are now faced with a challenge to our belief. So what do we do?
When we receive evidence that something in which we have believed is not true, what do we do? The first and simplest method is just to ignore the evidence and pretend that it did not happen. We can also challenge the source, saying it is wrong or mistaken in someway.
Denial is a classic form of coping with discomfort and is surprisingly common. Done well, it can sustain a belief indefinitely even in the presence of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. This is how many religious beliefs are sustained in the face of scientific and archaeological evidence.
Denial can be seen in statements such as:
You're wrong. That's rubbish and you know it.
Sorry, can we talk about something else, please.
The next step from denial also enables belief to be sustained, although this time the evidence is accepted. The process here is to offer an excuse of some kind, effectively excluding the disconfirming event from the belief set.
Excuses are often offered for people who have done something wrong, especially our friends and of course ourselves. In this way we can sustain the basic belief that we are good people, even though we sometimes do bad things.
Excuses are often framed as accidents and one-offs, perhaps as the paradoxical exception that proves the rule. Even if there is plenty of evidence to counter the belief, anything that confirms the belief is used as an excuse to show that it is true.
Excuses can be seen in statements such as:
I can do this if you give me the right tools.
Mistakes happen. It wasn't his fault.
In the face of mounting evidence and disconfirmation, belief can fade from assumed truth to little more than hope. We know that our belief is not really true and certainly not true in all situations, yet we cling to it, hoping that it is really true and somehow our faith will be justified.
Hope is an emotion that has focus on the future. This provides a safe haven for beliefs which may seem false at the moment. Beliefs about the future cannot be wholly disproven, which gives us a safe and unassailable position in which to believe.
Hope can be seen in statements such as:
Don't worry, it'll be alright on the night.
I'm giving him one more chance.
When even hopes are dashed, we reach a place when we want to believe, but find it difficult under the mounting weight of evidence to the contrary. We may continue to excuse and hope, yet we know that these are in vain. Denial also still hangs in there as we push back on the inevitability of our belief being wrong.
Desperation can be seen in such statements as:
He'll succeed one day, surely.
Let's give it one more go. You never know, it might work.
Eventually, we give in, accepting that the belief was false. This hurts. If we are wrong on one belief, we may be wrong on many others, which would throw our life into confusion, ripping apart our sense of identity and seriously damaging our ability to predict what may happen.
Disillusionment may include strong emotions such as anger, with a powerful desire to punish those who have let you down. It may well end up with depression as realization sinks in about how that the world is now forever different.
Disillusionment can be seen in statements such as:
He let me down. I don't know what to think about him now.
I'm confused. It's just not worth bothering about any more. I give in.
When a belief is destroyed, it may well leave a gap into which a new belief may find its way. We need beliefs to help cope with the world. We need to believe that others will be our friends. We need to believe in ourselves, that we are capable and can survive and thrive in the world.
Revised beliefs are often similar to the previous beliefs, but just taking account of new evidence. In effect, they are a fix. In this way scientists revise what they believe to be the natural laws of the universe. Changed beliefs may be a switch in doctrine, accepting 'truths' from a different source, such as when a person switches to believe in a different religion. And sometimes the beliefs are the same, but are focused on a different target, for example when a person changes their romantic partner and believes they will love them forever.
Revision beliefs are often filled with enthusiasm and can be seen in statements such as:
Steve is so wonderful. He really understands me and I know we'll be together forever.
I have woken up and seen the truth. Baptisma is the one true way.
The stages above are not mandatory and do not always happen exactly like this, though they represent a common sequence of feelings and actions. The time taken to go through each stage can also vary greatly, literally from minutes to years. People can get stuck in any stage, especially earlier ones, where the tension of challenge keeps the belief from being comfortable and easily held.
In fact the belief can collapse and be accepted as false at any stage. Generally, the weaker the belief and the stronger the counter-evidence, the earlier this may happen. This also depends on the believer and their need to believe. A scientist, for example should immediately doubt a belief if they are confronted with evidence from a respected source.
Beliefs can often be surprising, as can the response when a belief is challenged.
These stages of decay and acceptance are similar to the Kόbler-Ross Grief Cycle, which explains the stages of grief when a loved-one dies (it also explains much of how people react to other bad news, including the necessity to change).
It is also surprising how long people can cling to beliefs that are obviously untrue. It is said that an addict is the last person to accept they are addicted. The same can be true of other beliefs.
Another surprise may be how completely a new belief is adopted that may have exactly the same limitations as the previous belief and that the cycle of decay seems inevitable. Like those who fall in love with falling in love, some people seem to be hooked on the naivety of early belief and may be doomed to repeat history.
If you want to change a person's beliefs, one approach is to facilitate the decay of a belief you want to change, providing repeating evidence and guiding the person through the stages above. By doing this, you can first speed the process of change and also create a belief vacuum into which your revised belief may easily be accepted.
And the big