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Belief rules the world you and I live in. Humans have beliefs about all manner of things and it is our beliefs that determine for you and I what is and is not possible in our lives. The beliefs we hold dictate how we react to events and to new information. The beliefs that concern me the most are the ones I don’t know I have because to the degree that I operate on unidentified beliefs it the degree to which I am not free. So how can we recognize previously unidentified personal beliefs?

Don’t Get Defensive
It is a relatively simple matter to uncover previously hidden personal beliefs. All you have to do is know the signs to look for that indicates a belief you hold is dictating your current behavior. One potent sign that a hidden belief exists is whenever you experience an intensely defensive reaction to something. This is often a sign of an emotional need to hold on to a belief. For when close personal beliefs are challenged we tend to defend and justify them and our behavior at all costs.

Cognitive Dissonance
The occurrence of cognitive dissonance is another sign to look out for that subconscious beliefs are at work. Cognitive dissonance is an unpleasant feeling that drives self-justification of our actions and decisions, especially the wrong actions and decisions. Cognitive dissonance is a state of tension that occurs whenever a person holds two ideas, attitudes, beliefs, or opinions that are psychologically inconsistent.

As an example, after a stressful and exhausting week at work a beer and pizza feels like a great idea. However at the same time for some people, somewhere deep down inside under the outer facade, they know they are sick, fat, exhausted and unhappy and that self-medicating with pizza and beer is part of the reason why they are this way.

The tension between these two inconsistent cognitions produces mental discomfort. This can be anything from a minor pang to deep anguish and before long something has to give. Eventually we must find a way to reduce the mental discomfort. In the above example the optimal course of action is to actively seek out, learn and apply positive stress management techniques and to be prepared with a home stocked with healthy food ready to be prepared.

However, the person may really want that pizza and that beer. After all it has been a long stressful week and they can taste the glorious pizza and cold beer just thinking about it. In which case they are likely to reduce the dissonance in one of many ingenious though self-deluding ways. As an example they may justify it based on a hard workout they had that week. Unfortunately, all the hard work they’ve put in to momentarily improve their insulin resistance is going to be utterly destroyed by the incoming pizza and beer.

Consonance & Confirmation Bias
Dissonance theory also destroys the idea that we process information logically. The real picture is rather contrary to our egoistic self-conceptualization of ourselves as logical, rational, critical thinking beings. For example if new information is consonant with our beliefs we think it well founded and useful. However, if the new information is dissonant we consider it flawed, foolish or not common sense.

The need for consonance is very powerful. When we are forced to look at disconfirming evidence, we tend to find a way to criticize, distort, or dismiss it so that we can maintain or even strengthen our existing beliefs and world view. We like to maintain a stable sense of reality. This mental contortion is called the confirmation bias.

Recall the intensely defensive reaction discussed at the beginning of this article. If a person really wants a particular treat food or drink despite being overweight, unhealthy, exhausted and unhappy and someone (who actually cares enough about them to do so) informs them that they shouldn’t have it and why, they’ll likely find themselves quickly attempting to criticize, discredit or distort the discomforting evidence against having that treat. Anything can be willfully criticized and distorted if you don’t happen to actually want to learn something and improve the quality of your life.

Arguments are a simple matter to formulate and often those who have the will to be the most argumentative and suspend their own intelligence to the greatest degree in order to formulate argumentative point and counterpoint “win” the argument. Unfortunately, wining arguments does nothing to change physical reality. The simple fact is if you or someone you know is tired, fat, unhealthy and unhappy you or that person are continuing to behave incorrectly in the face of obvious feedback that your behavior is incorrect. You or they can rationalize and debate all day long. It doesn’t make a bit of difference.

Interesting Science
Neuroscience has shown that these biases in thinking are built into the very way all our brains process information. In one study a group of people were monitored by MRI while attempting to process dissonant or consonant information about George Bush or John Kerry.

The researchers found that the reasoning areas of the brain virtually shut down when the participants were confronted with dissonant information and the emotional areas of the brain became active when consonance was restored. What this shows is that we need to be very careful about making our minds up about something. For once we do there is a solid neurological basis that shows it becomes very hard to change. A personal program of open-mindedness just took on a whole new meaning.

Wrapping it Up
In the end beliefs are not necessarily good or bad. The point is unconscious unidentified beliefs are active in each of our daily lives. These beliefs dictate much of our behavior, how we see the world and the results we enjoy from our efforts. To the degree that we are conscious of the beliefs we each hold is the degree to which we can actively manage those beliefs for the improvement of the quality of our lives. This is the precise degree to which each of us is free. To the degree we each are free is the degree to which we each are enabled to be happy.

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