Nathanael Garrett Novosel, April 24 2024

Why Do People Believe Things That Are Wrong?

Probably the thing that drives most people nuts in the world is when someone believes something that they don’t. This is the fundamental issue that has led to wars, genocide, and plenty of arguments on the internet. So what is happening here, and do you need to do anything about it?

Well, there are several elements involved, such as:

When someone believes something different, it is because they have different facts, are making different assumptions, have a different prediction or guess as to what will be or is true, or they are influenced by what they want to be true. For example, if a child believes in Santa Claus, his or her parents said Santa Claus existed, presents show up under the tree (fact) that came from him (assumption), the child wants presents and so, by not believing, they might not get them (desire), and they expect to get presents under the tree this year (prediction). If those variables changed, such as seeing the parents put the gifts under the tree (fact) or not wanting someone watching what they’re doing to get coal (desire), the child might not believe anymore. When you have experiences in your reality, you begin to combine these components and form an understanding of your reality.

The most common disagreement occurs when there is a mismatch of information. Clearly, if someone was told that an event starts at 8:00pm and you have a published flyer from the event organizers that says it starts at 9:00pm, you will tell the other person that they are wrong and it starts at 9. It could be that they misremember, or the time could’ve changed to 9. However, it’s also possible that they were told that the flyer was wrong and that it now starts at 8 and so you could be wrong. Every person given an incongruence of information has to decide what is true based on the information they have and what plausibly might occur in the future (including the “we were both right” outcome where it was supposed to start at 8 but then got delayed and started at 9).

The problem is that most people treat any disagreement like this one. “My facts are correct, and yours are incorrect.” That’s not the situation every time, however. It could be that you both have partial information and, only when combined, could either of you come to the correct answer—e.g., you might be meeting someone at a party and only know that he’s bald while the other person also knows that he’s 6’1” and so you can find them more accurately with both pieces of information. Alternatively, it could be that you both have false information, you both have some correct and some false information, or that your information was correct but your assumptions or predictions were wrong. You might also not want something to be true and so live in denial. These are all possibilities, and so it’s not as easy as right vs. wrong.

There are also principles that are involved when something is “right” morally vs. correct factually: should stealing a loaf of bread be penalized with 20 years in prison? Factually, it might reduce crime to have strict punishments, but morally most people would believe that “the punishment should fit the crime” and would put down that proposed rule. There are so many factors that it almost seems surprising that people can believe the same things—without humans’ social nature, they might disagree more than they do now.

One of the most interesting disagreements are ones that cannot be settled, such as proving non-physical things such as God, heaven, souls, or ghosts. Of course, everyone is entitled to their own beliefs as to what is true regarding these things, but it is equally irrational to say that all of these things exist without proof as it is to say that they definitively don’t exist because there is no proof. The reason for this is that you cannot scientifically prove nor disprove the existence of a non-physical entity (i.e., God) through the study of the physical universe (i.e., science)—by definition, it’s a different thing that what science studies. The accurate answers would be, “I have faith,” for a believer and, “There is no evidence, and I assume the null hypothesis without it,” for a non-believer. The people who insult each other or give explanations like, “There is so much beauty in the world,” or, “You die and your body decomposes while your consciousness ceases forever,” that aren’t definitive proof of anything are overplaying their hands (so to speak).

The reason why I mention this belief is not only because that millions of people have died over this disagreement but also that I have been on both sides of that exact argument (on one hand, Pascal’s wager of believing because the costs of being wrong are high and, on the other, New Atheism of anyone believing in the supernatural believing in fairy tales). I then came to a weird middle ground after writing The Meaning of Life because, in the belief chapter, I found out how important belief is to success in life and how trying to squash beliefs that make someone’s life better is actually more detrimental than beneficial to them. So I learned some time ago to stop being arrogant about what is real or not when I can’t prove or disprove it. (note: software QA/testers know very well that you cannot prove the non-existence of something or that something will always/never happen, so a lack of falsifiability makes any argument to get to a definitive answer a waste of time)

There’s also another element of beliefs and truth that I’ve been understanding more and more every day: people don’t necessarily believe what is true; they are heavily incentivized to believe what benefits them. The “desire” point above—I believe it because I want it—is very powerful, and there’s a “crush your dreams” component to change someone’s beliefs if it also involves telling them that they’ll never get what they want in life. So arguing with people vehemently over certain ideas can be a detrimental game. This point doesn’t even account for differing perspectives where something might be right for one person but wrong for another or true for one person but false for another, creating even more confusion around what is actually true vs. what people choose to believe.

Three of the biggest causes of different opinions are:

As a species, humans will continue to learn and understand more things that they didn’t know before, such as what is inside of a black hole and what it looks like or what the surface of Pluto feels like. That doesn’t mean that in the future someone won’t do it; it just hasn’t been done yet. People accomplish things today are things that people thought were lunacy 500 years ago. In this case, belief is simply a matter of past experience plus future expectation. The day before teleportation is invented, the people who believed it is impossible are correct; the day after, those same people are now incorrect. Information changes, experiences change, goals and objectives change, and people’s degree of trust changes over time.

So impossible/stupid beliefs today might become common knowledge in 20 years. So, by definition, you hold “stupid” beliefs, too, right now (uh, oh…or, for a more bitter retort, “Yeah, suck on that!” (kidding)). So if you disparage others who hold beliefs that you think are stupid…you could be wrong at best and have it backfire and be detrimental to you at worst.

So you might be wrong, you might be wrong today but wrong tomorrow, and you might be right for you but wrong for someone else and harm them by discouraging or disparaging them. Someone might be safer knowing the truth or hold limiting beliefs. Someone might be delusional or realize their full potential with such an audacious belief. So beliefs are more than just the basics of believing in what is real to keep you safe and believing in what is possible to maximize your growth and realize your greatest potential.

Regardless of what you or anyone else believes, belief is a critical part of meaning, purpose, significance, and success in life. Believe has proven in research to be important in success, from studies on the Placebo Effect to Self-Fulfilling Prophecy to Priming to someone’s resilience or persistence. It’s not that belief magically makes everything happen without any action on your part or that nothing will ever happen if you don’t believe. Roger Bannister didn’t run a 4-minute mile because he believed; he didn’t give up on running because he believed, and he just so happened to run hard enough and have the biology required to do that. The belief in the outcome is a necessary (but insufficient) part of the process.

Finally, remember that things have happened that no one believes. There’s a very strong possibility that someone has broken a world record but no one was around to measure it—even the person breaking it might not’ve realize that it was a world record. But just because you don’t know about it doesn’t mean that it didn’t happen. Bill Murray might’ve taken a french fry from someone at Wendy’s and said, “No one will believe you,” or he might not’ve. Someone might’ve seen a ghost or had a psychic experience that no one else did. At the same time, you have to live with safety, so you don’t want to magically believe anyone who claims to be psychic just because you later believe that maybe sometime somewhere it did actually happen once to one person. Maybe God burned a bush for Moses to see, or maybe He didn’t. Now, in an AI-infused world, we might live in a world where few things we see in media actually happened in reality but rather a computer generated the events.

So, why does anyone believe in something you don’t believe, from God to aliens to the lost city of Atlantis to time travel? First, because they have different information, experiences, desires, and predictions. But second, why does anyone believe in anything? Because they believe that it will make their lives better/make them happy and not harm them. If they feel their beliefs harming them, they will change them; if they get new information, they might change them. But so might you with your beliefs. Beliefs are formed for benefit—and faith, also known as belief in a positive outcome without evidence, is the most core belief someone can hold about their lives being better in the future than they are in the present. That is the belief at the center of a growth-oriented universe containing living organisms. If you didn’t believe that your life would be good or better going forward, you would die.

So before you can accuse someone else of being deluded, you might want to ask yourself why you would delude yourself into thinking that you’re always right, that you know things that you can’t possibly (dis)prove, and that the right thing to do is tear other people down based on your beliefs (which, by the way, often only strengthen your opponents’ beliefs even further). You don’t have to agree with everyone else all the time (nor do they have to agree with you all the time); you are not converting anyone by being a jerk; and you’re often not going to get an answer that will satisfy you if you have the hubris to believe that anyone who has a different opinion is wrong and shouldn’t hold it. Beliefs are important for a variety of reasons—and, therefore, you are welcome to persuade people to help them succeed in life—but you have to be careful not to force them upon others or hate someone for their beliefs. You can try to change someone’s mind if you think it will benefit them, but be careful if your real motive is for your own benefit at their expense or just the tempting feeling to “be right” in any particular conversation. We are all susceptible to it, but remember the old saying that when your mouth is open, your ears are closed—when you think you’re right or perfect, you stop gathering new information and might end up being wrong in the future as a result.

Written by

Nathanael Garrett Novosel


Previous Critical Thinking and the Primacy Effect
Next Cooperation, Competition, and Growth