Why is it that so many talented, high-performing people feel like imposters who have gotten where they are in life by some sort of fluke? It’s often because of the core beliefs that people develop about themselves, others, and the world, which can maintain themselves despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Recent advances in neuroscience have suggested that this is because the brain is essentially a prediction machine. Expectations guide perception such that people are predisposed to see what they expect to see, and to favorably process information that fits with what they already believe to be true. Because of the way that the brain is wired, someone who believes that they are unattractive, for example, may literally see themselves as ugly when they look in the mirror. They may also perceive more rejection in daily life experiences because ambiguous social cues will be interpreted in terms of the core belief that they are unattractive, which in turn perpetuates and maintains this belief.
Social psychological experiments have consistently demonstrated just how remarkably impervious deeply ingrained beliefs are to change. In the 1950s, for instance, a group of psychologists infiltrated a cult whose members believed that the world would end on December 21, 1954, to see if their belief would change when the world did not end on that date. Interestingly, very few members of the cult second-guessed their beliefs in response to this very compelling piece of evidence! Studies like this show that deeply entrenched beliefs – whether accurate or not – are resistant to change, even with objectively convincing evidence.
If people can maintain faulty beliefs about the information that is factual and easily verified, imagine the erroneous and harmful beliefs that we are all capable of maintaining about ourselves, given the ambiguous nature of daily life experiences. It’s no wonder that many of us who have developed longstanding core beliefs that we are incompetent, unintelligent, unattractive, or unlovable maintain these beliefs, no matter how much evidence there is to suggest otherwise. The more central a belief is to a person’s understanding of themselves and/or the world, the more resistant that belief is to change. However, researchers have demonstrated that belief intransigence is not inevitable.
How can we learn to be skeptical of our own beliefs? Studies have demonstrated that individuals can become open to new beliefs, but in order for this to happen, people must 1) be aware that their previously held convictions will bias how they perceive and understand their experiences, and 2) be willing to consciously correct their beliefs given sufficient contradictory evidence. Research shows that when people are motivated and able, they can change their viewpoints. The first step is to gain insight about the intractability of our beliefs, particularly those that we’ve held for a long time, and the second step is to be open to evaluating the evidence in a more objective way.
Shona Tritt is a registered Clinical Psychologist and Faculty Lecturer at the University of Toronto Scarborough who has worked at The Clinic on Dupont since 2016.