What Is Belief Hacking?

What Is Belief Hacking?

Instead of letting beliefs control our lives, we can experiment with alternatives and measure the outcome against our own goals.

Where do our beliefs come from?

Many people will defend their deeply-held beliefs to the death. But where do beliefs come from? They come from our upbringing, our education, the media we consume, all the institutions that rule our lives, but rarely did we assess them for ourselves before adopting them.

Most of our beliefs were imposed on us at one time or another by somebody else. Sometimes an especially convincing argument can help us revisit or change an old belief but this is rare and difficult.

It doesn’t help that belief systems so often come with built-in defence mechanisms. A religious belief might rely the impenetrable force-field that is the concept of “faith”. If your belief requires faith then any idea that might otherwise reasonably force you to question its validity is quickly deflected as a test of your faith; that you must trust in the power of the divine. The same holds for the mental backflips taken by conspiracy theorists who would rather imbue their sinister organisations with escalating levels of power and ingenious cunning than to accept mundane reality.

What if what your belief is true?

You might think that you only believe things that have been proven to be true, but you may not be aware that the entire notion of “proof” is fraught with philosophical difficulties. Descartes said “I think therefore I am” because that was the only fact of which he could be certain.

There is great freedom and power in the realisation that there is nothing particularly special or important about the mishmash of beliefs that happen to have been imprinted upon you. Happenstance is a more likely explanation than truth.

So… nothing is true?

Some things must be true. Or at least a decent approximation. I’m not here to suggest that you throw out your entire belief system on the off-chance that it might be incorrect. Instead, I’m suggesting that if we didn’t choose our beliefs and we can’t really prove the veracity of one belief over another then perhaps we should be more relaxed about questioning what we believe.

People are more important than beliefs

Instead of thinking of your beliefs in terms of truth, you can try thinking about how they affect you and others around you.

Instead of defending our beliefs we can defend each other instead.

If you want to improve some aspect of yourself or your community, find a belief that is causing problems and convince yourself of a more humane alternative.

My first belief hack

Back in 2005 I was a smoker. If anybody suggested the idea that I might quit, my answer was always the same: “It would be impossible for me to quit smoking. I’m just hoping that lung-restoring nanotechnology will have been invented by the time I get sick”.

I believed that quitting smoking was impossible.

Then I picked up Allen Carr’s “Easy Way To Quit Smoking”, read a couple of pages and quickly snapped the book shut again. He was telling me that to quit smoking, I would have to stop smoking and never smoke ever again. It was simultaneously blindingly obvious and terrifying to my core.

When I plucked up the courage to pick up the book again, I found that it went chapter by chapter refuting each belief I had about smoking to hammer home the point that there is nothing good about cigarettes.

I didn’t know it at the time but that was my first Belief Hack.

Steps for a successful belief hack

  1. Identify a problem in your life
  2. Identify the beliefs you hold that are causing the problem.
  3. Invent and adopt new beliefs that can help you solve your problem

Example: How to lose weight

  1. Identify the problem

“I can’t stop eating unhealthy foods”

  1. Identify the beliefs you hold that are causing the problem

Why do you eat so many unhealthy foods? Maybe it’s because you believe that

  1. Replace these beliefs with better ones

Find alternatives to your existing beliefs and add new ones that will help you move forward.

Then you’ll need to find evidence to support your new beliefs.

If you loved bacon, try thinking about what it looks like before it’s cooked or what it looks like coming out of the animal. Gross yourself out. Think about how much salt, curing and cooking it takes to make it edible.

Then look for proof that fruit and vegetables are you favourite food.

Think about how much you love a fresh, crisp apple and how most of the other sweet things we used to enjoy are flavoured with fruit and how much better it is to cut out the middle man. Think about how much less work it takes to make vegetables taste delicious.

Stop looking for facts to support your old beliefs and keep looking for facts that support your new ones.

Think of this as an experiment: you’re trying on a new belief and looking at its outcomes. The quicker you let yourself switch, the quicker you’ll find out whether it works.

Measure the outcome

It might take a while to see results so you should always measure the metric you’re trying to improve. This could be your weight or it could be your happiness, but you won’t really know what worked unless you can accurately quantify the outcome over time.

With great power comes great responsibility

First, do no harm. Never choose beliefs that hurt other people. This is about freeing yourself from the beliefs that are holding you back from achieving your goals, not about finding new ways to exploit others.

Coming up with alternative, more beneficial beliefs is a creative process. If we have the confidence to try new ideas on for size, we can take great strides forward in our lives.

Stay tuned for future posts on this subject and feel free to tweet me @michaelforrest.

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