How much do you trust your own opinions? Do you feel that your beliefs and worldviews are based upon an “evidence file” of real facts? Most people do — and if asked to justify their position on big issues like politics, religion and life they would be able to hit you with a list of supporting facts and arguments. It’s the same for the smaller things too; people are usually very good at justifying their actions based on a reasonable-sounding chain of logic.
But are our opinions really as solid as we think they are? Here are a few reasons why you shouldn’t always “believe yourself” without giving your opinions a second look.
The human mind loves patterns. We love it when things fit together nicely and we’re innately primed to spot and recognize recurring patterns and ideas in the world around us. We’re so good at it that we can identify patterns even when there aren’t any.
Research has time and again shown that people will extract meaning from “noise” or meaningless sets of data. People see patterns and pictures in TV static. We see trends and themes in randomly drawn lottery numbers. We draw connections between unrelated images and call it fortune-telling. We see the face Jesus on a slice of toast.
This becomes an issue when we apply this same principle to our important life experiences. If the human brain is naturally good at finding patterns where none exist, it can link pieces of information which on their own are perfectly true but do not logically follow on from each other. This leads to forming conclusions which do not reflect reality.
This fallacy of over-generalization and forming beliefs on isolated facts is the basis of stereotyping. Maybe you’ve had a bad experience when visiting a certain town, or with someone of a certain ethnicity. Maybe you know someone who has had a similar experience to you. In your mind these small, isolated incidents paint a much broader picture that leads you to conclude that everyone from that town, or everyone of that ethnicity are just as bad as the one you came into contact with.
Making Facts Match Belief
Once a belief is formed in your mind, it’s very hard to shake. People like information that matches their pre-existing beliefs. This confirmation bias leads us to pay particular attention to information that confirms what we already know, while ignoring or discounting info which would conflict with our previously held views. Not only that but we will bend over backwards to make new information fit within our existing concepts.
Imagine a town where two politicians are running for mayor. At one end of town the existing mayor is holding a rally. He proudly states that during his last term he cut unemployment in the town by 10 percent, thereby proving that his policies are working and that he is the only man for the job. The room erupts in applause and cheering.
On the other side of town his rival is holding a rally. He says, “In his entire term my opponent only managed to cut unemployment by a minuscule ten percent! If a moron like him can achieve that much, think how much a genuinely hard working, forward thinking politician like myself could achieve!” The assembled crowd roars in agreement.
When preaching to people who have already made their minds up two people can take the exact same bit of information and use it to draw entirely opposite conclusions. And most people listening will be totally unaware they’ve done anything illogical in believing them. So all those facts and figures you have in your mental evidence folder might need a second look — you could have mentally shoehorned them in there so as to protect your established view of the world.
Mental Illness and Believing Yourself
All of this becomes a much bigger problem when you throw mental illnesses like anxiety and depression into the mix. These conditions bias your thinking towards the negative- they make you far more likely to interpret events in a negative way. If a friend doesn’t respond to your text, most people would think they were just busy, but someone with depression would take that as evidence that they aren’t really your friend and hate spending time with you. They then might start to form illusory patterns based on a few unrelated incidents- thinking that everyone they know secretly hates spending time with them.
Depression causes you to believe negative things about yourself and your value as a person. When “I am worthless” or “everyone hates me” is your starting point, confirmation bias becomes highly damaging because it makes you interpret every situation as validating your negative view of yourself. If people do choose to hang out with you- they’re only pretending to like you. And if they don’t- then you were right all along. With the filter of mental illness over your perception it doesn’t matter what happens, it all looks and feels the same.
You don’t have to suffer from mental illness to fall foul of the occasional faulty assumption or over generalization. From time to time everyone makes this kind of mistake and ends up believing negative things about themselves or the world around them. Learning to take a second look at your opinions rather than seeing them as infallible can free you from all kinds of damaging beliefs.