May 05

The Power of Belief

It’s time for me to renew my license plates. Luckily, I received a card in the mail with a PIN number, License Plate Number, and some other information I would need to renew them online. Given the many wasted hours spent waiting in line at the DMV over the years, I was grateful for this new alternative.

So, I went to log into the site with the information provided. I was asked for my PIN and plate number (changed). The PIN Number was completely new to me, but I was pretty confident I already knew my plate number. So, using the PIN from the card in the mail, I entered:

PIN: Z908099

License Plate Number: FR6SZL

I got an error message. OK, I thought, perhaps I entered something wrong. This time I entered it again following closely on the card for both the PIN and plate number. Another error message. Again I studied the card to see if I was making a mistake. I couldn’t find one, so I tried again. After another error message, I emailed their help desk. They asked me to email them with my PIN and plate number. I looked again at the card and copied the data into the email.

A short time later, they emailed me back. I had entered my plate number incorrectly; the “Z” was supposed to be a “7.” I looked back at the card and they were right! There was no mistaking it – FR6S7L. Yet, I had looked at the card four times and entered it incorrectly each time. It took an outsider to point out my error.

At some time in the past, I had the belief that my plate number contained a Z in the second-to-last spot. Just by having this pre-existing belief (that wasn’t even a particularly powerful belief), my cognition was significantly influenced. My expectation altered the presentation of reality. It’s important to note just how significant this is. Our belief will change the way our mind perceives things to the point of distorting clear facts. Everyone is susceptible to it.

I think the implication of religion here should be clear. When you think there has been an answered prayer or some sign from God, how is your belief affecting your perception? How about when you continue to practice the faith in which you were raised? The mere existence of these cognitive biases, which are well-attested in psychological literature, does not by itself entail the beliefs are false, but it should give us pause. It should give all of us pause.

So, what is the resolution? How do we guard against this? Well, there probably is no surefire way, but I can offer two resources. One is for everyone and the other is meant for religious people. The first is the website Less Wrong. They focus on how to improve rationality, how to recognize and overcome biases, and they even sponsor Meetup groups in various cities. Looking back over their archives will uncover an amazing amount of resources. The second is called the Outsider Test for Faith, or OTF. The OTF was designed by John Loftus, a former evangelical pastor and student of Sith Lord William Lane Craig, to test the assumptions of our homegrown faith by asking us to try wearing a lens of skepticism. Essentially, Loftus asks religious people to try viewing their own religion with the same level of skepticism they use to view other religions. This brief description doesn’t do the nuances of the OTF justice, but that’s why I provided the link. Check it out.

I consider myself pretty skeptical already, and yet I was fooled doing the simple task of reading a number clearly printed on a card. However sturdy we consider our beliefs, we are susceptible, and it can only help us to improve our rationality by questioning those beliefs.

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1 ping

  1. WRT

    I think a more helpful link than Less Wrong would be Yudkowsky’s site prior to starting Less Wrong: http://yudkowsky.net/

    It’s a little easier to navigate and all teh stuff is by Yudkowsky, so you don’t have to deal with some of the other fluff.

  2. Mike

    Thanks, WRT. I love Yudkowsky.net too. One reason I did Less Wrong is because it contains a lot of that and more, but you’re right about the organization being a little harder to follow and sometimes you just want Yudkowsky’s stuff and not the others (although I enjoy some of those other pieces).

    As long as we’re sharing links, Luke at Common Sense Atheism has a whole Reading Yudkowsky series where he blogs his way through all of Yudkowsky’s posts. http://commonsenseatheism.com/?p=13052

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