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Critical thinking, cognitive dissonance, and the nature of belief

Arthur Conan Doyle, writer of Sherlock Holmes and a doctor to boot, is often considered to be one of the smartest men of his time. He was a man who, at least through his writing of Sherlock Holmes, demonstrated a significant grasp of critical thinking and rational reasoning. Nonetheless, he also fervently believed in fairies, ghosts, demonic possession and the supernatural. Magical things which don’t bear up well beneath the lens of critical examination.

Conan Doyle is not an anomaly. Newton reasoned his way to gravity but engaged in magical thinking with regard to how the laws of nature came to be (he said it was all set-in motion by God). And there is such a plethora of Nobel Prize winners who, despite showing significant smarts in one field, promote cherished ideas not backed by evidence (or, worse perhaps, counter to evidence) they have a name for it – Nobelitis.

We all do this, to some degree, although perhaps not at such a lofty level. In particular, many of us hold cherished beliefs we never examine through the lens of critical thinking. We can easily see the flaws in the beliefs of others, when they are beliefs that we don’t hold, but we are blind to the intellectual (and often, moral) disconnects in the ones we do.

This was illustrated to me most clearly one particularly strange day when two different people vented their current frustrations at the world as follows. Person 1, holding literal beliefs about virgin births, resurrections, and the power of prayer, was dismayed by the illogic of anti-vaxxers, 5G conspiracy theorists and “people who don’t believe in science”. Person 2, anti-vaxxer and Ivermectin promoter, was equally dismayed at the religiosity of loved ones in their circle. Clearly they weren’t in the same room when this discussion occurred. But their words, said individually to me, were very similar in tone and meaning. “How do they believe such nonsense? What is wrong with them?”

These conversations launched a question of my own. It zipped around my head like blue-bottle fly on a hot summer’s day bothering me endlessly. How can people show an ability to think critically in one sphere but not in another? Or in other words, how can people justify their disbelief using arguments they completely ignore when considering their own beliefs? Hence my meander into the world of Sir Arthur Ignatius Conan Doyle.

But framing this conundrum through the lens of critical thinking is a completely incorrect intuition. We do not come to our beliefs through rational reasoning, and critical thinking plays no role in their formation. As moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt so elegantly pointed out our reasoning is more a servant to our beliefs, used to justify them rather than being involved in their formation.

The formation of beliefs

It’s worth defining what beliefs actually are. From a brain science point of view, beliefs encompass everything we “know” about the world.

We aren’t born with an internal blueprint of reality lodged inside our minds. We discover the world as we move through it. All we have to go on, like Plato’s prisoners in their cave, is what we believe to be reality. Our perception of the world – what we experience - is created by our brains based on incoming sense data. It is not an accurate representation of what is in the world, but a simulation based on the information the brain has access to. And what the brain has access to is limited by our particular sensory organs and what we are exposed to.

In other words, there is a space between what is actually “out there” and what we experience as “out there”.

Our brains automatically build models of the world in an effort to make sense of the environment we have to move around and survive in. That is, some have argued, the whole point of a brain. The purpose of these models is not objective truth or morality, but usefulness in the task of survival and procreation.

Everything we think is based on the models our brains have created about the world – almost always by subconscious processes we have little awareness of. These are the source of our beliefs, formed as subsets of neurons in the brain wire together based on our experiences.

Our beliefs, what we think we consciously know about the world and ourselves, expand all gamut of things – from the sky is blue to uncooked pork being bad for your health to beliefs about one’s value in the world. But coupled together with our urge for tribal connection, our evolutionary shaped need for explanations for why things happen, and our capacity to conceptualise abstract ideas, they also run into areas like conspiracy theories, superstitions, religion, nationalism, misogyny, and homophobia. Things we might typically associate with the word “belief”.

According to psychologist James E Alcock, the (human) brain is a belief generating machine. Sometimes these beliefs are accurate (at least accurate enough for us to function well in the world), sometimes they are patently false but harmless, and sometimes they are awfully scary, harmful to ourselves or the wellbeing of others.

Cherished Beliefs

As we go through life our internal models get tested against our experiences. They adapt and update based on those experiences. This sort of reality testing, you might think, would lead our brains to build belief models about the world that better reflected reality. This happens all the time, but not, it seems, when it comes to our cherished beliefs - beliefs about our identity and our tribe, or a particular perspective that matters to us for whatever reason.

Conan Doyle’s belief in the super-natural, perhaps driven by the death of his son, was immune to facts contrary to it. He vehemently believed Houdini (master illusionist) used real magical powers to achieve his feats despite the fact that Houdini showed him the inner workings of his illusions to prove otherwise. The blind faith he had in his beliefs opened him up to be fairly easily manipulated by others.

Why is this? Why are some beliefs immune to change even when confronted by strong evidence to the contrary?

Belief immunity

Cherished beliefs are strongly held. Not only consciously, but at a neural level. Given that we spend a lot of mental energy on them, and our attention, itself a filter on the world, is captured by them, the physical connections from which these beliefs emerge are continually reinforced.

But more than that, despite being easily disproved and often times harmful to others, they are self-serving. Our need and desire to be part of a group, to have status, a sense of control, and a sense of purpose, can make our beliefs more valued than other more abstract values – like honesty, truth, justice, compassion, or equality. From the brain's perspective, with its goals of survival and procreation, they are useful, at least to that specific individual.

Our brains seem moulded to protect our cherished beliefs – not designed with that intention of course, but as a result of the evolutionary pressures that have led us to this moment in time. They are rife with cognitive biases that shape what information is attended to, and how that information is processed. For example, we are more likely to notice or agree with things that align with our beliefs, and we actively seek confirming rather than disconfirming evidence. We get defensive when our beliefs are challenged, as though the brain interprets the questioning of our cherished beliefs by others akin to an attack on our homes - our place of security. All of this protects people from even seeing the logical holes in their beliefs.

Moreover, as a society, perhaps to our shame, we work to protect tribal beliefs, even when they are proven harmful to others and ourselves. Hence blasphemy laws to protect Gods and the burning of books to protect totalitarians. Even in the modern era we tolerate the indoctrination of children with ideas of homophobia and misogyny when it is in the service of faith.

But sometimes we just can't hide from the facts. Psychologists call the mental discomfort that comes from being exposed to information that conflicts with one’s beliefs cognitive dissonance. To alleviate this our narrative mind does a lot of mental jiggery to justify the beliefs we love and that are an important part of our conscious selves – our sense of identity. Hence, when prayer doesn’t achieve the desired outcome, the pious tell themselves a story about the will of God. When vaccines are shown to be effective and safer than the disease they are aiming to control, anti-vaxxers resort to tales of coverups and conspiracy theories. In effect, we easily create new beliefs to justify our cherished ones.

All of this is happening subconsciously by the way, but it's happening all the same.

The benefits and pitfalls of belief

Our impulse towards belief (which is a part of the human condition) must have had evolutionary value, because otherwise they wouldn't exist, and there are many rational benefits to some beliefs, particularly religious ones. Community, a sense of purpose and the opportunity for (at least in a narrow sense) reflection. They provide us with important social rituals that help us navigate life's milestones (births, marriages, death) and can provide a moral compass to guide good values (treating each other as we want to be treated, looking after the needy, taking responsibility for our actions).

One can also see the rational argument at the impetus of a cherished belief, but without the handbrake of critical thinking, rationality unravels and non-sense, literally, ensues.

It is rational, for example, to seek comfort in the face of adversity or fear, just as it is rational to want to ensure what you put in your body is not harming it. But it is not rational to believe that your religion (which for most people happens to coincide with the one they were exposed to through culture or family) is the ultimate and unquestionable source of all truth, nor is it rational to believe that every reputable expert in the field of immunology / virology has entered into a secret pact with every reputable journalist, public health official and government to harm the human race for profit. It is rational to believe that those in power are corruptible and self-interested (and to support institutions that provide checks and balances against this inevitability), but not that they are lizard men from another planet involved in a large scale human breeding programme to traffic children for abuse.

Critical thinking

According to famed psychologist Stephen Pinker critical thinking is a skill, something that has to be learned and cultivated, like literacy or art appreciation. And it is, for the most part, not our natural setting. This makes sense. Having to think critically about everything is exhausting and a drain on our limited mental resources, and it isn’t necessary most of the time.

But it is the capacity humans have over animals, and adults over children, and it is the thing that beliefs need most to keep them useful rather than harmful to individuals and society as a whole. Especially when it comes to public health policy, or the laws and rights that govern us all and the types of societies we want our children to grow up in, it really does matter that we all think critically about the beliefs our brains have served up for us, and ask hard questions of them.

However, doing this is hampered by three key problems.

Firstly, we don’t want to think critically about our cherished beliefs. They are precious to us, a key part of our lives and identities, and to shine a light on them threatens the foundations of our contentment and place in the world. Most of us are not trying to live an examined life. Most of us, dictated to by our biology, primarily seek comfort and pleasure in the lives we have. And when our lives give us this, there is no need to contemplate the intrinsic integrity of the beliefs on which it rests, or the harm those beliefs can often lead to (such as using belief rather than science to make laws about abortion or marriage, the rights of women, protecting our planet, or who is allowed to discriminate against others.)

Secondly, because the conscious brain only knows what it is exposed to, belief questioning requires access to new information. New information believers are not inclined to seek, and often even avoid. We all surround ourselves with information that supports our beliefs. We study the books and teachings of our creeds, follow people who share them, and elevate their “truths” beyond the available evidence. The algorithms that run our social media channels are particularly nefarious, reinforcing this by serving up information that interests us to capture our attention. In the echo chambers they create no alternative narratives are presented, and the prevalence of our beliefs is given artificial weight.

And thirdly, there are people and groups who benefit from cultivating faith over reason. Alpha personalities who love the adoration of a crowd of followers and are happy to milk them for all they're worth to serve either their own egos or their back pockets. Televangelists, wellness gurus, and political or cult leaders with a god-complex. And of course our long established faith institutions and political parties require the recruitment of believers to retain their sense of power and purpose.

Is there hope?

I don't know about you, but I want to live in a world where we can outwit our animal instincts and create societies where everyone has the chance to flourish and thrive, where all humans are treated equally regardless of their race or gender and where people develop their philosophies through the considered engagement of reason and reflection, rather than what they happened to inherit by random accident of their birth or social media rabbit holes.

At my most down, when my negativity bias and the focused content of outrage and horror that drives our news feeds overwhelms me, I feel a sense of hopeless for the human race. But then I remember that we have made significant progress, and for almost everyone on the planet, life is demonstrably better than at any point in the past. I remember we've managed to get together and create a charter of human rights, and that through the use of science we've improved childhood and maternal mortality, life span and overall well-being. In old bastions of religiosity, such as Northern Ireland, abortion and gay rights are embraced, and that all over the Western world women are finally having their voices heard and being treated, at least on paper, as equal before the law and employers. That didn't just happen. That took brave people, using rationality and humanist values, to fight the ingrained prejudices justified by faith.

There is cause for hope. But it requires the cultivation of awareness about who we are and what drives us, and it requires bravery to reflect on the beliefs we hold dear and thrust them into the light for examination.

Are you up for that? I hope so.

Onward to awareness


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