Mainstream psychology and related disciplines have traditionally treated belief as if it were the simplest form of mental representation and therefore one of the building blocks of conscious thought. Philosophers have tended to be more abstract in their analysis, and much of the work examining the viability of the belief concept stems from philosophical analysis.
The concept of belief presumes a subject (a person) and an object of belief (the idea). So, like other propositional attitudes, belief implies the existence of mental states and intentionality, both of which are hotly debated topics in the philosophy of mind, whose foundations and relation to brain states are still controversial.
Beliefs are sometimes divided into core beliefs (that are actively thought about) and dispositional beliefs (that may be ascribed to someone who has not thought about the issue). For example, if I asked you “do you believe tigers wear high heels?” you might answer that you don’t, despite the fact you’ve never had to think about this situation before.
This has important implications for understanding the neuropsychology and neuroscience of belief. If the concept of belief is incoherent, then any attempt to find the underlying neural processes that support it will fail.
Philosopher Lynne Rudder baker has outlined four main contemporary approaches to belief in her controversial book Saving Belief:
Our common-sense understanding of belief is correct – Sometimes called the “mental sentence theory,” in this conception, beliefs exist as coherent entities, and the way we talk about them in everyday life is a valid basis for scientific endeavour. Jerry Fodor is one of the principal defenders of this point of view.
Our common-sense understanding of belief may not be entirely correct, but it is close enough to make some useful predictions – This view argues that we will eventually reject the idea of belief as we know it now, but that there may be a correlation between what we take to be a belief when someone says “I believe that snow is white” and how a future theory of psychology will explain this behaviour. Most notably, philosopher Stephen Stich has argued for this particular understanding of belief.
Our common-sense understanding of belief is entirely wrong and will be completely superseded by a radically different theory that will have no use for the concept of belief as we know it – Known as eliminativism, this view (most notably proposed by Paul and Patricia Churchland) argues that the concept of belief is like obsolete theories of times past such as the four humours theory of medicine, or the phlogiston theory of combustion. In these cases science hasn’t provided us with a more detailed account of these theories, but completely rejected them as valid scientific concepts to be replaced by entirely different accounts. The Churchlands argue that our common-sense concept of belief is similar in that as we discover more about neuroscience and the brain, the inevitable conclusion will be to reject the belief hypothesis in its entirety.
Our common-sense understanding of belief is entirely wrong; however, treating people, animals, and even computers as if they had beliefs is often a successful strategy – The major proponents of this view, Daniel Dennett and Lynne Rudder Baker are both eliminativists in that they hold that beliefs are not a scientifically valid concept, but they don’t go as far as rejecting the concept of belief as a predictive device. Dennett gives the example of playing a computer at chess. While few people would agree that the computer held beliefs, treating the computer as if it did (e.g. that the computer believes that taking the opposition’s queen will give it a considerable advantage) is likely to be a successful and predictive strategy. In this understanding of belief, named by Dennett the intentional stance, belief-based explanations of mind and behaviour are at a different level of explanation and are not reducible to those based on fundamental neuroscience, although both may be explanatory at their own level.
So after all that, how do we define Belief?
Definition: A belief is a Driver (usually Unconscious) we hold and deeply trust about something. They can trigger our Values, Emotions & Behaviours. Beliefs tend to be buried deep within the subconscious. We seldom question beliefs; we hold them to be truths even when there is no solid evidence to support the belief.
A Belief is aroused by an Event e.g. without being aware of it, Andy held the belief that it was ok to openly criticise people. Alienation of his friends caused him to identify, question, and change this belief about what is acceptable to others.
We each behave as though our beliefs are true. What we perceive defines what we believe and this belief or perception is what guides our behaviour. A Belief is a form of judging something to be true, sitting somewhere between opinion and knowledge. Opinion is a subjective statement or thought about an issue or topic, and is the result of emotion or interpretation of facts. Knowledge is learnt expertise, skills, facts and information.
A simple definition for a belief is: A belief is an assumed truth. We create beliefs to anchor our understanding of the world around us and thus, once we have formed a belief, we will tend to persevere with that belief, sometimes even when holding onto that belief is detrimental to us.
Change begins with awareness. Awareness begins with learning about how beliefs and emotional reaction are created by choice.
Some fundamental information about beliefs:
- They may or may not be based on truth
- They can also be easily formed out of emotion relating to one or many incidents
- They may or may not be supported by irrefutable evidence
- They usually have an emotional attachment, which strengthens belief
- They do not update themselves automatically and therefore are stored at the initial stage (emotional state, etc.)
There are 3 Basic Types of Beliefs
1. Casual Beliefs: Everyday, practical beliefs that don‘t matter much if we get them wrong such as – I believe it will rain tomorrow
2. Conditioned Beliefs: These come from an assessment of what has happened in the past and then predicts the same results in the future. So we get beliefs such as I‘m no good at this or I can‘t do that. These beliefs, if negative, can stifle our potential and limit our lives.
3. Core Beliefs: Can be positive or negative, lead us to be an optimist or pessimist and decide the answers to such questions as Who am I?, What is life about? What we learn and experience in early life shapes beliefs about the world and ourselves. Core beliefs are like a mental framework that supports our thoughts, beliefs, values and perception. Core beliefs are the deepest of all because what we believe “deep down inside” underpins our value system and our attitudes and opinions. This is one of the reasons why core beliefs are seldom questioned even when they are causing enormous problems within the person who holds that core belief.
Last of all, there is a fourth type of belief that overlaps all three previous types and these are Limiting Beliefs. These can be hugely destructive and even lead us to the point of complete hopelessness and suicide. Now of course, this does not have to be the case and is rare in the grand scheme of things, however, these limiting beliefs that we all have from time to time can really hold us back from achieving what we want to achieve in life.
“Life Begins at the End of Your Comfort Zone.”
Damn right it does.
The one common false belief holding you back is that you think that your past determines who you are. If that were true, no one would ever overcome adversity, benefit from a second chance, or improve themselves through education, self-discipline, or perseverance.
Your past actions, good and bad, can be judged by you and by others. You can learn from your errors as well as your successes. Others can think what they will, but neither your reflections on your past nor others’ opinions of you determine who you are now or in the future.
Believing that your past defines who you are is a toxic fallacy. Consider a circus elephant chained by one leg to a stake in the ground: Why doesn’t the elephant just pull the stake loose and wander away? Because it couldn’t do so when it was young. And so the adult elephant is still restrained—not by the chain, but by its past, or rather, the learned associations from its past (Chain around leg means “can’t walk”).
Cognitive dissonance is the culprit that motivates us to maintain the belief that what we were in the past is all that we ever will be. Leon Festinger originated the concept back in the 1950s. He also proposed the principle of cognitive consistency—that is, that we seek to maintain mental and emotional balance by thinking and acting in compliance with who we think we are. And who do we think we are? The same person we have always been. And so when we attempt to think and act differently, cognitive dissonance sets in.
Here’s the trick— metacognition. That simply means being able to observe one’s own thinking and feelings objectively and unemotionally, so that one can assess what may be “pushing our buttons.” If you want to change but experience cognitive dissonance in the process, metacognition can help you identify dissonance as a normal but unhelpful reaction. With effort you can then master the dissonance and proceed with the changes you want to make, until those changes become the new normal.
Are you chained to the past? If so, that chain exists only in your mind. You can remember and reflect on the past without being defined and limited by it.
What’s stopping you? Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.
Limiting Beliefs are beliefs we have that limit the way we live, or from being, doing or having what we want. We all have limiting beliefs from time to time in our lives, particularly when we have to learn something new that is way out of our comfort zone, beyond our current skill set or just so completely different from anything we’ve done before.
If you speak to any Olympic athlete they will tell you that there have been times when they wanted to quit because at times they felt it was just too hard to achieve that small improvement in performance to throw or jump further, to swim or run faster. They constantly have help from their coaches to reframe these negative thoughts that create limiting beliefs.
I remember very clearly several occasions during my time in basic training to become a Royal Marine where I wanted to quit. There were a couple of key tests that pushed me way beyond my limits at that time and the self induced pressure from that put my mind into a negative spiral of doubt and self criticism. My training team new I could do it, it was purely that stress and pressure had sown that seed of doubt and reframed my usual positive outlook into a limiting belief about these key tests. Just as the Olympic coaches do with their athletes, my training did the same for me and reminded me of everything I had achieved so far and what I was working so hard for, that elusive and exclusive Green Beret. Something I had wanted for a long time and this stirred the fire in my belly and revved up my determination, motivation, commitment and desire to refuse to quit until I had that beret on my head. They reminded me of the Royal Marines Corps Spirit, Values and Ethos which are:
The Commando Spirit
These four elements of the Commando Spirit; courage, determination, unselfishness and cheerfulness in the face of adversity, were etched into my mind during my basic eight months training and are well known to all Royal Marine recruits by the time they complete their Commando training. But these constituents of the ‘Commando Spirit’ are what make the Royal Marines individual ‘commandos’. What shapes the way they work as a team, giving the Royal Marines its special identity, the way they carry their duties, is a second set of group values laid out below. They should seem quite familiar. It is the combination of individual Commando Spirit qualities, coupled with these group values, that together forms the Royal Marine ethos.
Royal Marine ethos = Individual Commando Sprit + Collective Group Values
- Cheerfulness in the Face of Adversity
- Professional Standards
- Commando Humour
These elements collectively are what have stood the test of time for me and all of my clients that I have worked with over the last twenty years in smashing Limiting Beliefs, these beliefs fall into five main categories:
1. Any ‘feelings’ that you can’t feel: If the description you give yourself or someone else gives you which, when you “try it on,” is something you cannot feel without hallucinating substantially. Eg ‘I feel I have to worry’. Also, where the word ‘feel’ could be replaced by ‘believe’ and the sentence still makes sense, then that could indicate a limiting belief. Eg ‘I feel (believe) people don’t like me’.
2. Negations: Anytime there is a negation describing anything, which might be an emotion eg ‘I’m not clever’, ‘I can’t have a good relationship’
3. Comparatives: Whenever there are comparisons. Eg ‘I’m not good enough’, ‘I can’t make enough money/friends’
4. Limiting Decisions: Whenever a Limiting Belief is adopted, a Limiting Decision preceded that acceptance. A Limiting Decision preceded even the beliefs that were adopted from other people. Eg ‘I should know all the answers’, ‘I should get it right every time’.
5. Modal Operators of Necessity: Words such as have to, got to, must, ought, should.
The Pygmalion effect refers to the phenomenon in which the greater the expectation placed upon people (such as children, students, or employees) the better they perform. The Pygmalion effect is a form of self-fulfilling prophecy. Within sociology, the effect is often cited with regard to education and social class. The principle works in both ways, if you have high expectations then people will generally respond positively and achieve what’s expected, equally on the other side of the coin, if we have low expectations of people then they will respond according to our attitude and behaviour towards them.
Some examples of Limiting Beliefs are as follows:
I must stay the way I don’t want to be because__________________________________
I can’t get what I want because______________________________________________
I’ll never get better because_________________________________________________
My biggest problem is______________because_________________________________
I’ll always have this problem because__________________________________________
I don’t deserve_________________because____________________________________
I’m not good enough to_____________________________________________________
NB. It is important to distinguish between statements of fact/truth, and limiting beliefs, for example:
POSSIBLE TRUTH/FACT ————————— LIMITING DECISION
I don’t have any money ———————— I can’t make any money.
I am not a good athlete ———————— I cannot become a good athlete.
I don’t have any qualifications —————- I need qualifications to succeed.
I don’t trust people ——————————- People are not trustworthy
Below is a little exercise that explains how to change or reframe a limiting belief so that you change your beliefs/thinking/attitude/feelings which changes your actions/behaviours which changes the results you achieve in your life.
I would really like you to consider this exercise and take some time to think about the times in your life where you have doubted yourself and created a limiting belief or had a long held, conditioned limiting belief that held you back from achieving something you really wanted, perhaps not permanently but something that slowed you down and got in your way. Use this exercise to draw out the detail of a limiting belief/s and use this knowledge to reframe it into an empowering belief that drives your life in the direction you want it to go.
Every single one of your beliefs is important to you because what you believe determines who and how you are.
I would like you to use this cheat sheet and take some time to think about the times in your life where you have doubted yourself and created a limiting belief/s that have held you back from achieving something you really wanted. Perhaps not permanently but something that slowed you down and got in your way. I recommend writing a description of each belief in as much detail as possible so that you really understand what it is made of, this makes it much easier to identify what you can, want and need to change in order to reframe it and change it into a positive, empowering belief.
Answer the following questions and write your answers down:
- How does it make you feel when you think about that limiting belief?
- Can you identify what changed and when, if it did?
- What limiting belief/s do you have right now? How does that make you feel?
- What do you want to believe about that situation, person, people etc that would change the outcome to one that is positive for you?
- How does changing the belief about that situation make you feel?
Part 1: What are My Limiting Beliefs
Part 2: Now I Know My Limiting Beliefs, What Can I Reframe Them Into Empowering Beliefs
Use this section to reframe and rewrite your old limiting beliefs into new Empowering beliefs that bring a whole new spin, a new energy to them as they transform you and lead your life in a direction that you may have been striving for and now it will happen all by itself as you change your thinking, behaviour and results.
My final thought is this.
Bell, V.; Halligan, P. W.; Ellis, H. D. (2006). “A Cognitive Neuroscience of Belief”. In Halligan, Peter W.; Aylward, Mansel. The Power of Belief: Psychological Influence on Illness, Disability, and Medicine. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-853010-2.
Jump up: Baker, Lynne Rudder (1989). Saving Belief: A Critique of Physicalism. Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-691-07320-1.