Most of the time, we don’t question our own beliefs. We’re pretty sure what we believe is true – that’s why we believe it! Many of us may not even consider ourselves to be people who have Beliefs with a capital B–but we all do! Because beliefs are just thoughts we don’t question. Negative thoughts create negative beliefs, positive thoughts create positive beliefs. Once you learn how beliefs are created, you can develop intentional beliefs that actually work for you. This means you decide on purpose what to believe.
Repeated thoughts form beliefs.
We create beliefs with our thoughts. The thoughts we repeat over and over again become beliefs that we think are true. Unfortunately, our brains danger bias means that a lot of the thoughts we repeat are negative. Thoughts like, “I’m not a good public speaker” or “To make money in business you have to work all the time.” We believe these thoughts not because they are facts, but simply because we have repeated them so often that we have created neural pathways for them in our brain.
We’re exposed to so much sensory input every day (what we see, hear, touch, etc.) that our brains cannot reasonably process it all in real-time. The way our brain copes is by deleting most of it from our conscious awareness. The amount of external stimulation is like a firehose, which our brain automatically filters down to a trickle, using our beliefs as the filter. We may think that the way we interpret the world is “logical,” but we are always using the filter of our experiences and interpretations. To keep things efficient, our brain creates an equivalency system. Repeated thought = shortcut = fact. When it interprets a that neural shortcut as a fact, it looks for evidence to support that belief. Over time, this process reinforces the pathway, and the cycle repeats itself. We called this “confirmation bias.”
The Ladder of Inference
One of my favorite teachers, Chris Argyris, was a professor at Harvard Business School when she developed her “ladder of inference” theory of how our brains reach conclusions and make decisions. I created a simple chart below to show how the ladder of inference maps to the thought model I use in coaching.
Each of us shape reality differently and are often unaware of what we delete, distort or generalize. We miss an entire array of data that makes up other people’s reality. When we disagree, we think we are right and the other person is wrong, but most of the time they are simply selecting different data to notice. Understanding this will make you a better business leader.
Flip the Script: Use Confirmation Bias for Good
Typically, we hear about confirmation in a negative tone, but you can actually make it work FOR you, instead of against you. Your thoughts cause your beliefs, your beliefs drive your feelings and actions, and your actions produce your results. By changing your thoughts, you can decide to believe anything you want. Oprah was born into poverty in rural Mississippi, and there was no reason to think she would evolve into a billionaire philanthropist, but she believed she could make a difference – and she certainly has.
To leverage confirmation bias, our brains need a new focus to collect evidence for. One excellent way to train your brain on a new target is to ask questions. Try asking yourself these questions when making a decision or reconciling different opinions. These are the same questions to ask when delegating, when taking on new projects, when creating a new vision. They are powerful, and when repeated, can help you re-wire those neural shortcuts.
- What am I noticing?
- If I look carefully, what might I not be seeing?
- What am I making this mean?
- What else could this mean?
- When have I seen this before and what was the outcome?
- What is different about this circumstance from similar ones I have seen?
- Why am I reaching this conclusion?
- What if the opposite were true?
- Who else can offer me an opinion?
Using these questions, you can uncover beliefs that could be subconsciously driving decision making, and use that new information to change your results. While I won’t pretend it’s easy, it really is that simple.